Twelve months ago Rory McIlroy’s coach floated among the Georgia pines without a care in the world and watched his young pupil paint the blank canvas that Augusta National had presented him on his Masters debut with brushstrokes of genius.
This week, things were very different. Michael Bannon beetled along the rope lines, looking back frequently to see where McIlroy’s tee shot had landed, his face creased with concern at times. There were few smiles as he peered through his binoculars at the player he’s guided since he was a four year old.
Following close by was Cornell Driesson, the young South Africa physiotherapist who has been working to strengthened the 20-year old Ulsterman’s core. Dressed totally in black, Driesson’s attire was entirely apposite. McIlroy’s performance here was a mirror image of his current state of mind.
Concerned and inhibited by a bone stress injury, he has not been swinging freely since January and the resultant lack of confidence pervaded his game like a cancer on the world’s most punishing golf course.
The same could be said for Padraig Harrington or Graeme McDowell. For the firs time since Darren Clarke failed to make the cut in 1999, Ireland was not represented at the weekend at the Masters.
If you have a weakness in your game, Augusta National will expose it mercilessly. As two time US Open champion Curtis Strange said earlier this week: “Augusta is such a mental golf course, such a second short golf course, such an exhausting golf course. If I had something going on in the background, I’d be toast.”
McIlroy is simply frustrated that he cannot let loose with his swing. Nick Faldo commented this week that the former winner of his Junior Series is compensating for his back problems by overusing his hips and that was a recipe for disaster.
Add to that his lack of confidence with the wedge and the putter - three three-putts in two days - and it is no wonder that McIlroy sounded disillusioned with this game afterwards and announced that he needed to take time off to regroup.
McIlroy knows that he is being too hard on himself and when he is fully fit again, the spring will return to his step.
“Maybe I just need to sit down and tell myself that I am only 20 years old and that things are actually going well for me,” he said. “But I do expect better from myself and it has been a disappointing few months.”
McDowell’s short game has always been his Achilles Heel at the very highest level and those deficiencies were accentuated at Augusta.
“My short game needs to improve if I want to go up a gear,” McDowell said. “It doesn’t get me out of trouble when it should and I am throwing shots away around the greens. I look at the top of the leaderboard and Ian Poulter and know that my tee to green game is as good as his but his short game is way better and that is why he is leading the tournament.”
As for Harrington, the Dubliner’s third failure from 11 starts was arguably the most disappointing of the three. Having asserted in Houston last week that his confidence had not been dented by a lacklustre performance over the last two rounds, he changed his tune on Friday evening, confessing: “The confidence just wasn’t there.”
Unlike McIlroy or McDowell, Harrington is very much a manufactured player and he appears to find it difficult to carry out running repairs on his swing.
Now in his 15th year as a professional, Harrington has never given up trying to get better and planned to spend time on Augusta’s practice range yesterday afternoon.
Asked if he felt that his chances of winning the Masters were running out, the 38 year old grinned and shook his head.
“Not at all. I think I am coming into my own. I am not there yet. Absolutely not.”