Rory McIlroy brings a new approach to Masters in quest for Grand Slam
By Paul Newberry
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) – Rory McIlroy stood on the 17th green, waving his arms this way and that.
Then he feigned a jump shot for England's Matthew Fitzpatrick, recreating the NCAA men's basketball championship game from the night before.
"He was explaining what happened," Fitzpatrick said after they wrapped up their Masters practice round Tuesday. "It was an exciting finish, apparently."
Indeed it was, as Villanova swished a winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
"Unbelievable," McIlroy said. "Ridiculous."
He's hoping for some theatrics of his own at Augusta National.
Maybe a new approach will help.
With a career Grand Slam again in his grasp, the 26-year-old from Northern Ireland changed his preparation for the first major of the year. Instead of arriving early, he didn't play his first practice round until Monday. He also tried to take a more competitive approach, replicating a match-play format his first time around the course, the 3-and-2 victory over Chris Wood clinched by a hole-in-one at the 16th. That was followed by a four-ball match on Tuesday.
"I've hit it off pine straw this week," McIlroy said. "Hit it out of the rough, fairway bunkers, bunker shots. You get more of a feel of how the course is actually going to play and especially from certain areas that you wouldn't normally hit out of in a practice round. I'm just trying to play at more like it is a tournament round."
At the 18th hole, he yanked his second shot into the patrons left of the green.
"Sorry," McIlroy said sheepishly as he walked up to his ball.
Then he chipped it right next to the flag, the gallery roaring its approval.
For McIlroy, this is all part of a new plan to become just the sixth player to capture the modern version of the Grand Slam. He's already won the U.S. Open, the British Open, and a pair of PGA Championships. The Masters is the only thing standing between him and the exclusive club that includes only Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods.
McIlroy took his first shot at the Slam a year ago, only to be derailed by a sluggish start. He fought back to a tie for fourth at 12-under 276, his best finish ever at Augusta National, but wasn't really a threat to winner Jordan Spieth.
In hindsight, he acknowledges being a little overwhelmed by the moment.
"I think part of that was having so much expectation and thinking of the Grand Slam and thinking of the Masters and thinking of all this, whereas I needed to just take a step back and relax and go out and try and play my own game," McIlroy said.
As soon as last year's tournament ended, he began making plans to change things up.
There were no advance trips to Augusta National to get accustomed to the course. And he passed on the chance to come in the weekend before for a few extra rounds.
"I really feel like I play my best golf when I'm more relaxed, when I'm having fun out there and I'm not overdoing it, not overthinking it," McIlroy said. "You can obviously relax too much, but then on the flip side, you can consume yourself with it, which I don't think's a good idea, either."
The changes extend to Wednesday's Par 3 Contest, a just-for-fun event that he'll skip this time. Instead, he'll play nine holes, try to get off the course by 3:00 p.m., and head back to his rented house to relax. He brought along a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle to pass the time, and might play a game of Monopoly.
"There's a lot of really fun stuff going on," McIlroy said sarcastically.
Not so fun, he's slipped to third in the world rankings and is still seeking his first win of the season, challenged by plenty of talented 20-somethings who are just as eager to be recognized as Tiger Woods' heir apparent.
Spieth won his first two majors a year ago, and nearly won two more. Jason Day broke through for his first major title at the PGA Championship, and moved to the top of the rankings with back-to-back wins last month. Rickie Fowler hasn't won a major yet, but it seems just a matter of time.
"I want to dominate," McIlroy said. "I want to go back to the summer of 2014 (when he won the British Open and PGA Championship) and play like that for the rest of my career. Whether that's possible or not remains to be seen, but I know that's a level that I can play at."
Three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, himself just a U.S. Open victory away from the career Grand Slam, calls McIlroy one of the players to beat at Augusta.
"He's hitting drives so long," Lefty said. "He's going to have a distinct advantage over 95 percent of the field."
McIlroy has no doubt he'll win the Masters before his career is done. He doesn't want to linger too long in the quest.
"There would be no better time," he said, breaking into a sly smile, "than this week."
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