After Augusta trip, McIlroy looks to Bay Hill: "It's important to play well here"

An impromptu visit from coach Michael Bannon last weekend said everything you need to know about the state of Rory McIlroy’s game as the countdown begins for the Masters.

The good news for those concerned about the world No 1’s form heading to Augusta National is that his swing feels "much better” as he makes his debut in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

"Michael Bannon came over on Friday evening,” McIlroy revealed. "So we worked Saturday, Sunday, Monday at home and then he's still here yesterday, today, goes back tomorrow. That was sort of an unplanned visit.  Hadn't really scheduled that in. 

"The last five days have been really good work with him just one-on-one, no one else around. It's been really good. So, feeling much better about my game now than I was walking off Doral ten days ago."

Five days of work hints at some major problems. But if you were to read between the lines when he was talking about his recent two day trip to Augusta last week for some golf with his father, some friends/members and American football star Tom Brady (he coincided in the gym with Brady and the Manning brothers Eli and Peyton one morning in the American equivalent of dying and going to heaven) McIlroy’s game is not so far away.

"It wasn't the course record,” he said, teasing. Then he added: "It was in the 60s, I’ll give you that.”

The world No 1 was at pains to point out that his trip to Augusta National was as much a bonding exercise — not so much with his father but with Augusta itself given his difficult relationship with the course.

“Hundred percent fun.  Zero percent serious.  I didn't hit any extra balls.  I played one ball the whole time.  Really wanted to go and enjoy it with my dad.  That was what the whole thing was about. There's four father and sons and we had a great time.  I spent two days, one night and it was just about going and enjoying ourselves and that's really what we did.

"First day, I played pretty well.  Second day it was cold, really cold.  Hit driver 3-iron [hat tip D. Trump] into the last and didn't reach the green. But it was good fun. 

"Dad had a great time and that was one of the reasons that we really wanted to go up and at least now he appreciates what I go through one week a year whenever I come off the course and he says, 'Why did you do that on 6' or, 'Why did you go there on 14?' It's not that easy.  Now he appreciates what it's like."

McIlroy has just one top 10 from his six Masters starts even though the had a four-shot lead with a round to go in 2011. No wonder he was keen that his father should understand the difficulties and the nuances of the course.

The more you go back to that place the more comfortable you become with the surroundings and golf course
— Rory McIlroy on Augusta National

Whether he can unravel its secrets this year and complete the career Grand Slam remains to be seen but he’s certainly fairly clear on what he needs to do.

He didn’t have to meet Jack Nicklaus at the Bear’s Club on Sunday to know that the Golden Bear’s favourite piece of strategic advice is to hit it in the middle of every green.

From tee to green, there’s nobody better in game than McIlroy and he’s clearly aware of that fact.

But it was interesting that he made no mention of the Augusta amateur Jeff Knox, who outplayed him when marking his card in the third round last year. It’s becoming comfortable with the greens that’s key.

"Tee to green I know what I'm doing there and it's just about being comfortable on the greens and around the greens. I think they've got their member tournament, The Jamboree this week.  They got the course in very similar shape to what it might be come the tournament. It was a little softer, played a little longer. The green speeds were up there. The more you go back to that place the more comfortable you become with the surroundings and golf course. That's sort of how I feel about it."

Bay Hill should suit McIlroy's power game — after all, Tiger Woods won eight times there — and he believes it's important that he contends this week.

"For me it's important to play well here, to get into contention and just feel what it's like, final event going into Augusta, just feeling something on the last day and the back-9 in contention, having a chance to win all that stuff," he said.

"I don't think there's any better way to prepare for a tournament is to get into contention, you know, pretty closely enough to the event.

"The next couple of weeks I'll just go home and practice and just get ready and think about the shots that I'll need, try and get the superintendent at the Bears Club to get the greens as fast as possible, tight aprons and all that sort of stuff.  Just practice and play a little bit.

"Might go over to Seminole a couple times and play.  Greens are quite undulating and can get quite fast.  That's really it.  Yeah, just go about it the way that I always do and not try and put too much pressure on myself.  I'll head up there at the start of the week of the Masters and prepare like I would always prepare any other tournament."

As for Woods, McIlroy was more than respectful of the man he's slowly replacing as the face of the game. And when asked if Woods could turn up at Augusta National now having opted to skip Bay Hill, he said: "Back in '10, '11 he finished 4th coming off whatever it was, Thanksgiving to then, I guess.  He knows his way around the Augusta.  If he feels ready to play and he does play then he knows what to do when there.  Yes, someone that's won the Masters four times, whatever, yeah.  I think he's pretty comfortable in that place."

McIlroy is joined Orlando by Graeme McDowell, Shane Lowry and Padraig Harrington with the former searching for form and the pair from the Republic seemingly having fun.

Whether it was a chipping or putting contest or the result of a practice round is unclear but Harrington was moved to tweet that the Clara man had to hand over the cash.