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McIlroy Out to Prove He's Ready
After a rotten start to his 2013 season, Rory McIlroy seems to be getting his vaunted golf game back to form. And what a better place to see it bloom than at Augusta National Golf Club for this week's Masters?
The 23-year-old made a splash early in the year after signing a reported $250 million, 10-year contract with Nike. But his swing - regardless of the golf club in hand - was in no shape to take on serious competition. He failed to make the cut in Abu Dhabi, then as the top overall seed lost in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
Adding to McIlroy's woes was his leaving midway through the second round of the Honda Classic. When Tiger Woods won the WGC-Cadillac Championship a week later, McIlroy lost his No. 1 ranking to Woods.
The Northern Irishman may have made a critical decision last week, however, opting to play in the Valero Texas Open instead of taking the week off before the Masters to practice. Lo and behold, McIlroy closed with a 6-under 66 to finish second to winner Martin Laird.
On Tuesday during a press conference at Augusta National, McIlroy seemed nonplussed about his performance so far this year. "I've always said the main golf season is from the start of April to the end of August, so that's when I want to play my best golf."
Well, now he has a chance to prove he's ready to go. Besides confirming that, McIlroy pooh-poohed any "rivalry talk" with Woods, saying, "When you speak of rivals, you tend to put rivals who have had similar success. He's got 77 PGA Tour wins. I've got six. He's got 14 majors. I've got two. If I saw myself a rival to Tiger, I wouldn't really be doing him much justice."
Here's what else McIlroy, who won golf's most recent major - the PGA Championship last August by a whopping eight shots at Kiawah Island - had to say about this week.
MODERATOR: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I'd like welcome Rory McIlroy to his fifth Masters Tournament. Rory, his best finish in the Masters was 15th in 2011. Rory added to his growing list of accomplishments in 2012 by winning four PGA Tour titles, including the PGA Championship, his second major. Rory was voted PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2012, and led the World Rankings for most of that year. Rory, welcome, and how was your preparation for the tournament, and congratulations last Sunday.
RORY McILROY: Thank you. Yeah, preparations have been going well. Got here on Sunday night and played the front nine yesterday. And just I think every year you come here, you just want to get a feel for the course. Not much has really changed about the course this year. I think just a couple little of adjustments to the 14th green. So it was just about getting a feel for the place again, familiarizing yourself with lines off tees and where to leave the ball on the greens. It's obviously a very strategical golf course. So just about getting that right. So yeah, everything's been going well and looking forward to the week.
Q. I know you talked about it a little last week at Texas, but can you elaborate on what you got out of last week; did you get what you were looking for out of it, you know, throwing it on the schedule and the way it unfolded?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, I thought last week, it went really well, almost perfectly. I got what I wanted out of it in terms of playing more competitive golf, getting the scorecard in my hand, shooting scores. I think a bonus was getting into contention and I felt like how I played when I got into contention was really pleasing. You know, I chased Martin down there pretty hard on the back nine. Most Sundays when you shoot 66 in these conditions, it's going to be enough. I just got beaten by an unbelievable round that day. I got a lot out of last week, and obviously bringing a nice bit of confidence here this week.
Q. How important was San Antonio and Doral before that to you psychologically and to your confidence? And secondly, would anything less than a win be a disappointment this week?
RORY McILROY: I mean, Doral was the place where I felt like I turned the corner in terms of my golf swing. I was feeling a little more comfortable with it there. As I said, last week wasn't about golf swing. It was just about getting competitive play. I felt like I accomplished that, and I played well, got myself in the mix in the tournament for the first time this year, which was nice. And would anything less than a win be a disappointment this week? Yeah, it would be. Yeah, I mean, you know, every time you come here to Augusta, you're wanting to win that green jacket, and every time that you don't, it's another chance missed, I guess. But if I'm sitting here on Sunday night and I've finished second or if I've give it a good run, you can't be too disappointed because you've had a great tournament. But the ultimate goal is getting one of those jackets.
Q. How tough was the decision not to go to Haiti? I know that was something difficult. Can you talk about that, please?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, it was tough, because golf sometimes is a selfish sport, and sometimes you have to do what's right for yourself. I knew I was letting a lot of people down with my decision to go to San Antonio, but at the end of the day, that's what I needed to do to feel like I was ready for this week and this tournament. Yeah, you know, as I said last week, I made a couple of tough phone calls. But, you know, I felt like it was the best way for me to prepare for this week.
Q. And you will reschedule at some point?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, I hope so, yeah, we'll see.
Q. Is there one particular aspect of your game, be it off the tee, irons, short game, putting, that you feel like you've had the most growth since the beginning of 2013 or maybe gained the most confidence in?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, I think it's mostly been my long game, my driving, and my iron play has had the most growth. The way I was hitting the ball at the start of the year, I needed a short game just to get myself around the golf course and I was able to do that. Yeah, off the tee has been a big improvement. There was a little bit of an adjustment period getting the driver that really suited me. And once I got that, you gain confidence whenever you play rounds and you see yourself hitting good drives, hitting it in the fairway, and setting yourself up with iron shots into the greens. So I think that's been the biggest improvement this year.
Q. At Doral you said that you were looking to enjoy your game more; do you think that's now happening?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, when you make birdies, you smile. It's sort of - you want to enjoy playing, but you know, whenever you make birdies, you enjoy it and whenever you play better you enjoy it more. I think you've got to find a balance. If I'm going around making a lot of bogeys, it's hard to smile. But yeah, we're in a very privileged position and I'm lucky to be out here doing what I'm doing. You've got to make the most out of it and enjoy it.
Q. You said that Tiger's resurgence might help you by taking the spotlight off you; as soon as he took back the world No. 1, seemed like you played your best golf. Was it a bit of a weight off your shoulders, do you think?
RORY McILROY: No, not at all. It wasn't anything to do with that. It was just about me gaining confidence because I was playing a bit better and swing was in a better place. So nothing to do with that. Just me, you know, progressing as a golfer this year, and ultimately building up to this tournament. I've always said the main golf season is from the start of April to the end of August, so that's when I want to play my best golf.
Q. You took exception to the comment that the Masters is the Wimbledon of golf. What makes the Masters in your mind different from Wimbledon?
RORY McILROY: I guess because of I'm a golfer. Growing up, on TV - or growing up watching this on TV, just, it's a special place. It's just a very, very special place, and it's a place that's very special to me. It's very special to probably a lot of people in this room. I don't know if I can explain it. But I just, you know, every time you drive in the gates here is a big thrill.
Q. Given the fact that you have played here relatively few number of times in terms of competing in the tournament, how would you describe your relationship with this tournament?
RORY McILROY: I love it. I mean, it's my favorite tournament of the year. I think everyone knows that. I think it's a lot of guys' favorite tournament of the year. It's the one you're looking forward to the most. I had a chance to win in 2011 and obviously that didn't go too well, but still doesn't change the fact that it's my favorite golf tournament.
Q. You spoke of how golf can force you could be selfish sometimes, and it's never really seemed to be your nature naturally to be that way; is that the hardest thing you've found since you have become more and more successful, that you have to left people down?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, a little bit. Whenever you get in the position, people are going to want more of your time. You have to say no sometimes. It was unfortunate I was in the position I was in a couple weeks ago because I had to say no to something like that. I mean, I can say no to an interview or no to whatever, but saying no to that is much more difficult than saying no to something that's ordinary, I guess. Yeah, you've got to remember what got you to this position, which was practicing hard and putting the time in and you can't really let anything take away from that.
Q. It must be difficult to hang on to the boy from Holywood to try to keep your feet on the ground?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, I haven't been back there for a year, I guess. I have no real intention of going back until - I won't be back in Ireland until The Irish Open; I'll be there for a week and then I'll be away again. It's just the way golf is and the way my life is.
Q. You've proven that you play very well here, but you haven't had a clean Masters yet without something that's sort of tripped you up along the way. Do those experiences frustrate you or do they help you get better, and do you think it's going to make you better?
RORY McILROY: No, they definitely help you, because every time you come back here, you gain a little bit more experience from the previous year. And, okay, you shouldn't hit it there; or, you know, if you want to miss this green, you miss it this side, stuff like that. You can play pretty sloppy around here, but if you miss it in the right places, you'll get away with it. It's just if you start to short side yourself and you start to miss the fairways on the wrong side, then you get into problems. But if you know where to miss it here, you can always save yourself and you can always get it up and down or give yourself the best possible chance to save par.
Q. Do you feel like you have a rivalry with Tiger? If so, or if not, how would you define the competitive relationship there?
RORY McILROY: No, not at all. I don't see myself a rival to Tiger or to anyone. Tiger obviously has been on Tour, for, I don't know, what, 12 more years than me or something like that. So his record - when you speak of rivals, you tend to put rivals who have had similar success. He's got 77 PGA Tour events; I've got six. He's got 14 majors; I've got two (laughter). If I saw myself a rival to Tiger, I wouldn't really be doing him much justice.
Q. As you edge back towards the form that you consider close to your best, do you understand a little bit more about how it fell so dramatically short?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, I think so. I mean, as I said, I've went through these sort of patches before where I haven't played so well and the game feels quite far way and then something clicks and then all of the sudden it's back again. And you know, I probably should have learned more from it from last summer when I was going through those struggles, but it's just about keeping on top of everything, keeping on top of fundamentals. When I don't play my best, it's when I get into bad habits in my golf swing. Whenever my golf swing is where I want to be, that's what I produce results, and that's what I've seen has started to happen over the past few weeks.
Q. You seem fascinated by the strategic challenge set by Pete Dye at Kiawah Island last August. Obviously the terrain is very different, but is there a comparable strategic challenge here in terms of finding out the course and responding to that challenge?
RORY McILROY: Definitely. I mean, I think at Kiawah and here - okay, the greens at Kiawah are probably a little smaller, but in terms of slopes and in terms of run offs and places to miss it, it's similar in some ways. And yeah, you know, again, you have to err on the right side and give yourself a little margin for error here, because you've basically got mini greens inside the main greens here and it's all about trying to hit those. And if you don't hit those, then where is the best place to 2 putt from or where is the best place to get it up and down from?
You know, so if you hit it in the - say you miss the fairway on 7, for instance, here, and you hit it in the right trees or the left trees, the best place to hit it is the front bunker because the front bunker is a relatively simple up and down. Whereas if you leave it short of the front bunker and hit it over the back of the green, a 4 all of a sudden is a very, very good score. So just a matter of knowing where to, if you do get yourself in trouble, get it out of trouble and know when you get it out of trouble, where the best place is to save your par or to limit the damage as much as you can.
Q. Which hole stands out for you? Which one do you remember watching?
RORY McILROY: 2005, Tiger and DiMarco, I think, Tiger holed the chip shot out on 16. That, and '97, those are the two that stand out in my mind more than anything else.
Q. When you first came here, do you recall what your feelings were about the course? Did you embrace it right away? Did you feel it was a place that you could do well at, and that suited you? And how has that evolved?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, I guess to start, you're in awe of the place. It's a place you've seen so much growing up on TV and it always has that aura or that mystique about it. It probably took me a while to get fully comfortable on the grounds. Took me a while to get comfortable taking a divot (laughter). Once you get over that and you treat it like any other golf course, then, yeah, I mean, the layout and the shots that you have to hit around here, I feel like it's a place that I could do well at for sure.
Q. Any tweaks or changes to your equipment this week, and how much more comfortable are you with your equipment than the start of the year?
RORY McILROY: No tweaks at all, just staying with the same setup. I put a new lob wedge in the bag last week, just fresh grooves basically. And then just sort of got it bedded in last week. But no, same set, driver, 3 wood, 5 wood, and 3 iron through pitching wedge, sand wedge, lob wedge and a putter, which is usually quite important around here.
Q. How comfortable are you with the equipment?
RORY McILROY: I'm very comfortable and I'm 100 percent there. I wanted to do it all at the start of the year. I didn't want to leave it for a while and say, okay, I'll put something in in dribs and drabs. I just wanted to get it all in, get it all settled and have it over and done with, so eight, nine months down the line, I don't have to say, okay, right, I need to try to get this in or that in. I just wanted to get it all in straightaway. I'm really comfortable with everything, and I feel like they are a part of me now and that's the way a golf club should be.
Q. I worked out, you're almost ten years older than the young Chinese boy, I wonder if you have any thoughts on him being here this week?
RORY McILROY: I just met him in the locker room before coming here. I was actually saying, I was having breakfast with my dad and my coach this morning and I was just like, 14 years old and playing in the Masters. I mean, I was playing in the European Young Masters in Augsburg, Germany, when I was 14. I think I played my first Masters when I was 19. But it's just going to be such a great experience for him. If I had any advice for him, just enjoy it. You're playing in the Masters at 14; I mean, he could potentially play, I mean, I don't know, 60 Masters (laughter). What's this, the 77th, so he could actually double it nearly. Yeah, it's incredible. Just a great accomplishment. A phenomenal talent to win the Asian Amateur at such a young age and I just hope he enjoys it this week.
Q. Do you enjoy the Masters the way he should enjoy it or at what point does it become hard work?
RORY McILROY: Becomes hard work when you start missing in the wrong spots. But no, you enjoy it. It's a privilege to be here, and every professional golfer or amateur, high level amateur, for that matter, would love to be here, every April. It's a great position to be in and I'm excited to be here. I'm excited every year to be here. But you know, when Thursday comes around, you're here to try to win a golf tournament and you have to, you still enjoy it and you're focusing on trying to shoot a score and you're focusing on trying to, as I said, win.
Q. Six weeks now since your miss step at Honda and five since your mea culpa at Doral, what had you heard in the intervening time, from the fans, especially?
RORY McILROY: I'm very lucky that I get great support from fans wherever I go, and it's very much appreciated. I mean, there's obviously now and again, you get, 'how's the tooth,' or something like that. But no, everyone's been great and as I said very lucky to get great support anywhere I play.
Q. How is your tooth?
RORY McILROY: It's better. Better. Getting it pulled out in June. So it will be okay until then.
Q. When you make an equipment change, do you have to throw the other stuff away so it doesn't taunt you from the closet and mess with you?
RORY McILROY: No, not at all (laughter). Most of the clubs that I've used the past few years have been given away, anyway.
Q. So it's not the set that's in the closet that when you play bad you sort of look at the closet and wonder?
RORY McILROY: No, because it's definitely not the clubs, that's for sure. That's what I've found out over the past few weeks; it's more me.
Q. You've spoken a lot about figuring this place out by trial and error, wondering what's the best piece of advice you've received from another player?
RORY McILROY: I'm not sure. I'm definitely not one to go and ask other players for advice. I would rather just try to figure stuff out for myself. And I'm probably going to adopt a little different strategy off the tee this year than the previous years; try to hit it into the fat parts of the fairway. Because I'm confident with my iron play, so there's no point in taking on too much off the tee. So there's generous fairways out there and you hit into the fat parts and you're always going to give yourself a good chance to get it close to the pin.
Q. Back nine 2011 seems a long time ago now, but when you have been back out there playing, obviously the demons last year, are they all gone? And on a happier note, will we see Caroline on the bag tomorrow?
RORY McILROY: Yeah, of course, all the demons are gone. They were gone as soon as I got off the 18th green. What's done is done and it doesn't matter. It was the front nine that I struggled on last year. I got off to a couple of rough starts Thursday and Saturday, a couple 6s on the first. So as I say, I'm glad to be back here. I have no ill memories of the place at all. I absolutely adore the golf course and it's great to be here. Yeah, Caroline will be on the bag tomorrow.
Q. This time last year we were asking you about the struggles of Tiger Woods, but now obviously he's there as a hot favorite for the tournament, warm favorite for the tournament; is that at all daunting or does that just put an extra competitive edge?
RORY McILROY: Doesn't make a difference to me at all. I'm here to concentrate on myself and play my game and try to shoot the best score that I can. It really doesn't matter what anyone else does, because I'm here to try and shoot the best score that I can, and if I can do that, I know I'll have a good chance.
Q. What's prompted your change of strategy off the tee? Is it the play on the front nine you were speaking about?
RORY McILROY: A little bit. It's more I guess, is there really a difference between hitting an 8 iron or a 6 iron into a par 4? You just don't want to, there's certain holes on this golf course that if you play them the right way, you play them smart, you can make like a birdie every day or you can definitely limit the mistakes and not make a big number. But no, it's more just, it suits my eye to hit a certain club off the tee and not force myself to hit a driver to try to get it down there as far as possible. Of course you still have to be aggressive around this golf course, but I think there's times where you have to, as I said, put it in play, put it in the middle of the fairway, and instead of trying to give yourself an 8 or a 9 iron into the green, know that you're going to have just as good of a chance hitting a 6 or 7 iron.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Rory.
The transcript for the above interview is courtesy of ASAP Sports.
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