The Las Vegas bookies have adjusted their Masters odds* and despite his own doubts, an impressive win for Dustin Johnson at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump Doral and some flashes of brilliance from defending champion Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy remains the clear favourite for the green jacket.
That said, he admits he needs to rebuild confidence in his game and a trip to Augusta National this week with allow him to reacquaint himself with the shot shapes he must work on before he returns to Georgia in April to chase the final leg of the career grand slam.
The world No 1 made headlines three days running for heaving his three-iron into the lake on the eighth in the second round. On Saturday it was news because a frogman had retrieved the club from the deep at the behest of the resort owner, Donald Trump.
On Sunday, Trump soaked up the spotlight by ceremoniously waiting on the range to return the club to McIlroy, who promised to give it to him after the round.
"Thirteen is an unlucky number,” Trump said. “I want him to have 14 clubs in his bag."
It will be mounted in a case in the clubhouse but only because McIlroy mockingly resisted the urge to return it to a watery grave at the 18th on Sunday, when he followed a pulled drive into the water by pulling his three-iron third shot into the lake again.
He chipped in for six and a 72 and ominously, he finished tied for ninth with his B game, eight shots behind Johnson who fired a 69 to win by one from overnight leader JB Holmes (75).
“The game's just not quite there,” McIlroy confessed. “I’ve got a week off now to try and work on it a little bit [before Bay Hill]. Pretty disappointed with how I played overall. I felt it was a little better again today for the most part. Bit of a disappointing finish. But yeah, just not quite 100 percent.”
Asked if there were any alarm bells ringing for Augusta, he pointed out that he’s got little confidence in his draw right now.
“My inability to hit the ball right to left isn't something that you want going into Augusta,” he said. “That’s something I want to try and work on a little bit.”
Explaining exactly what he meant by his tentative play in Miami, he said: “A little bit scared to play certain shots because I feel like I can't at the minute. So hitting away from flags, trying to make sure that I'm missing it in the right areas. You know, just playing quite conservatively just, which is very much unlike me because of the way I usually play.
“JP said to me on the last green, ‘I think we left our game in the desert.’ It's still sort of back there. I’m surprised a little bit. Hitting shots that are just very unlike me. Getting the two-way miss, double-crossing it, hitting it left, or hitting that sort of slicey block out to the right. If I knew I was missing it one way, it would be a bit easier. But it was just a bit of a struggle this week.”
The 18th hole summed up McIlroy’s week. Not only did he find water off the tee, he pulled his approach into the lake with the infamous three iron.
“Look, it's fine,” he said of Trump’s pre-round publicity stunt. “We know Donald. He's never one to miss an opportunity (laughter). It was fine. It was good fun.”
As for the glitches in his game, all he needs is range time.
“I have no concerns about that at all,” he said. “It's not something that I need to play my way out of. It's just something that I need to stand on the range and beat balls until I feel comfortable with it again.
“I think the last couple of years I've become more comfortable hitting the ball left to right and I think that's one of the reasons why I did so well last year, the last few years, is my ability to get to sort of back right pin positions and hit the ball both ways.
“But I was always able to do, you know, hit the right to left shot at will, and now it's not quite as easy. And especially with some of those strong left to right winds out there, it makes it quite hard.
“So if I'm really trying to draw it, like the ones on 18, I'll come over it on the right shoulder and come in and it will start left and draw, and that's the one I'm trying to get rid of.
“I feel a bit better about my game after this week compared to playing two days at Honda. I mean, it has not been all bad. It's a Top 10 somehow. But I'll move on and I'll practice hard the next sort of well, I'll practice hard all week next week and get ready for Bay Hill.”
At Augusta he said he’d be hitting a lot of draws.
“Or trying to hit a lot of draws, anyway. You don't really get Augusta at tournament speed until the week of the tournament, so there's no reason to be trying you know, just reacquaint myself, try and play the shots that I'll need and try to get some visuals going into the next couple weeks.”
McIlroy will be joined at Augusta National by Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell, who left Doral with mixed feelings.
Like McIlroy, McDowell admitted that Doral exposed the flaws in his game that he hopes to sort out before his home town event at Bay Hill as he shots rounds of 73 73 75 and 77 to finish 19 shots behind the winner in joint 56th on 10 over.
For Lowry it was a case of what might have been.
Chasing a top three finish that would have secured his tour card — he would have needed a closing 66 —he bogeyed his last two holes for a 74 and a share of 17th on one over.
It was a frustrating end to another strong week for the Clara man, who parred the first nine holes and then drove into water at the 10th, making a fine bogey.
From there, his patience was sorely tested and as mixed missed chances with fine saves before getting back to level by driving the 16th, he bogeyed the 17th and 18th.
High expectations often leave Lowry struggling to keep his cool but it’s clear he now looks extremely comfortable in the US and his confidence in putting in a strong performance on his Masters debut looks justified.
Johnson is third favourite for the green jacket and having sorted out the personal problems that kept him off the tour for six months.
The speculation over substance abuse and alcohol problems will never go away but he gave a revealing answer in the live TV interview on the 18th green straight after his win.
“I knew I was really good [but] there was something missing that could make me great,” he said.
He added: “It means everything. It’s been a tough road, but a really good one, Obviously a lot of great things came out of it. My son, and me and [fiance] Paulina are doing great. It just feels awesome to get that W.”
R McIlroy 11/2
B Watson 10/1
D Johnson 12/1
J Day 12/1
A Scott 15/1
J Spieth 15/1
R Fowler 20/1
T Woods 50/1