AUGUSTA, Ga. — Rory McIlroy played a practice round with Matthew Fitzpatrick on Tuesday and as they walked the fairway the difference in age was startling.
Fitzpatrick, an amateur from England, is 19. But he looks as if he’d ask McIlroy if he could please, please stay up until 10.
McIlroy, a pro from Northern Ireland, is 24. Yet, he’s the veteran. To say grizzled is a stretch; he has too much youthful energy, exuberance and hair. But try to remember the Masters, or any other major tournament, without him.
I’ve heard two fans – one at Augusta National Tuesday and the other at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club last year – say they thought McIlory would be taller. Accomplish what he has, as quickly as he has, and expectations grow.
McIlroy certainly is one of the favorites this week at the Masters. He was the PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2012 when he won four tournaments, among them the PGA Championship.
McIlroy was not the player of the year in 2013. He switched equipment and came, at least by his standards, undone.
But he shot a bogey-free fourth-round 65 at the Shell Houston last week. Although his Masters resume is not overwhelming – he tied for 20th, missed the cut, tied for 15th, tied for 40th and tied for 25th – he calls this week the most “anticipated” of the year.
“I’m disappointed that my best finish was only 15th,” McIlroy says. “I feel like I’ve played better than that and haven’t quite got the results. Hopefully I can change that this week.”
His 15th-place finish in 2011 was an adventure. He had a four-shot lead when the final round began. Then he hit his tee shot on the 10th hole into the cabins. At another course, it would have landed in somebody’s front yard. He finished the hole with a triple bogey and the round with an 80.
“I have no ill feelings towards 2011,” McIlroy says. “I thought it was a very – it was a very important day for me. And I don’t know if I had not have had that day, would I be the person and the player that I am sitting here? Because I learned so much from it. I learned exactly what not to do under pressure and contention, and I definitely learned from that day how to handle my emotions better on the course.”
Two months later, McIlroy won the U.S. Open which, after his Masters finish, was the ultimate up and down
He had tried a new strategy when he shot the 80. He shut out the distractions and drew in. There was nobody but him, his club and the course. He admits that’s not him.
McIlroy is on 15 Wednesday, perhaps 40 yards from the green, when he thinks of a joke. He pauses to tell it and his group cracks up. When he finishes the joke he sees two friends in the gallery, walks over, shakes their hands and says he’ll see them Wednesday night.
McIlroy has long been a leading candidate to challenge or supplant Tiger Woods as golf’s dominant figure. But all he and Woods share is enormous talent, lucrative endorsements and a commitment to the gym.
McIlroy is looser. Walkinga golf course with him is like walking with Phil Mickelson. When his game is working, it’s as if the gallery ropes drop to the ground and fans are invited in.
Speaking of Woods, McIlroy talked about how a sport can use a dominant athlete, and among the examples he cited were basketball’s LeBron James and tennis’ Rafael Nadal.
Is McIlroy prepared to dominate golf? Or, he’s asked, is there something in the Irish psyche that gets in the way?
The premise is interesting. An Australian once explained to me that when one of his countrymen tried to stand out, he was tamped down. The tall poppy syndrome, he called it.
I thought he was going to say socialism.
“No, I’m not uncomfortable with the position,” McIlroy says about being golf’s dominant figure. “Did it take me awhile to come to terms with it? Yes, because it’s not something you ever thought … you were going to have to deal with or handle.
“But, yeah, of course, if you’re in that position than you’re one of the top players in your sport. I’m certainly not at their (LeBron’s, Nadal’s) level. ... But I’m working there and I’m trying to get there.”
Azaleas are taller than poppies. Maybe start here.
Sorensen: 704-358-5119; email@example.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen