McIlroy prepares to solve Augusta puzzle: "There are so many variables rolling around in your head"

McIlroy prepares to solve Augusta puzzle: "There are so many variables rolling around in your head"
 Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy insists that ten competitive rounds will be enough to mount another challenge for the Masters when he makes his ninth appearance there on April 6.

One of his biggest supporters, Paul McGinley, reckons that the Co Down man is in a great place mentally and physically to try and complete the career Grand Slam in Georgia.

And McIlroy was not begging to differ, despite having his run in the WGC - Dell Technologies Match Play cut short by that first round defeat to Soren Kjeldsen, the Dane's win over Emiliano Grillo and the knock on effect of Gary Woodland withdrawal for personal reasons.

"I've played ten competitive rounds, I guess," said McIlroy, who insisted he was not adding next week's Shell Houston Open to his schedule at the last minute.  "I felt good. I've played well. 

"I struggled the first round of Bay Hill, but apart from that, it's been quite good. 

'Right now I can't see a downside to not having played as much as I planned to. I feel really healthy. I don't feel any issue with my health."

McIlroy also hopes that having played so little this year, he will be mentally sharp for his bid to win the major he needs to complete the set. 

"Freshness could help especially mentally," he said. "Mentally going in there and not being drained. So that's a good thinking as well. As I said, I wouldn't be trying to emulate this buildup in the next few years even if it does work this year."

McIlroy knows that losing to Kjeldsen left him in danger of early elimination in Texas. But he wasn't beating himself up too badly.

He played out a meaningless halved match with Grillo on Friday after the Argentinian's defeat to Kjeldsen on Thursday ended his hopes of forcing a playoff in the group following the Woodland withdrawal.

Having planned to play a heavier schedule than ever before being forced to sit out seven weeks of the season in January and February due to a fractured  rib he said was a result of excessive practice searching for a new ball-club combination, it's ironic that having his plans ruined may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

He returned for the WGC- Mexico Championship in early March, finishing tied for seventh after rounds of 68, 65, 70 and 71, then took a week off before recovering from an opening 74, adding rounds of 71, 65 and 69 to finish tied fourth behind Marc Leishman in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

His first round performance against Kjeldsen would have resulted in a win on most days, but he was unfortunate to come up against an inspired performer. 

"Speaking to Sergio after the first day, if I had of played Sergio I would have beat him 6 and 5 and Soren beat me 2 and 1," McIlroy said. "So it is what it is. It's one of those things."

Rather than heading for Houston next week, McIlroy said he would go to Augusta on Sunday night and play there on Monday and Tuesday before going back to his Florida base to prepare for the first major of the year.

While he may appear to be under-golfed — he's played just 14 competitive rounds this year compared to 30 before last year's Masters — McIlroy feels he's played enough.

"Yeah, I think so. Every time I've played, I've played well. I did okay in Mexico. I did pretty well at Bay Hill. Had a chance to win. I think I was seven-under for the two rounds I played here this week. I played pretty well."

He added: "The injury hasn't been ideal to start the year, but I've played Houston before and I never felt like it did anything for me. I added it late before. I added San Antonio late before the Masters in '13 and finished second there. It didn't really help me the following week. 

"So I'd rather go up to Augusta, play a couple of quiet practice rounds and then prepare at home and get ready that way."

On his build up to Augusta this year, he said: "Even if it does work this year, I won't be trying to emulate it in the next few years. That's for sure. 

"Again, it's giving me a chance to prepare a little bit better. I feel like I've worked on my short game. If anything, I feel like that part of my game is as sharp as it has been ever going into Augusta, so that's a good thing, I guess. It's been a bit of a strange buildup."

Describing major preparations as something of a lottery, he added: "It's a very fluid process. This year it has been a bit of a different build up for me, but maybe it will work in my favour."

Getting out of bad habits at Augusta National is next on the list, and McIlroy has work to do to get through a couple of holes that have caused him problems in the past.

"It's been a few things," he said when speaking to Sky Sports. "In 2014, I played the par five in even par, and if I had played the par-fives better than that, I would have had a great chance.

"In 2015, Jordan obviously ran away with it and I wouldn't have had a chance to catch him.

There are so many variables rolling around in your head. It’s quite the puzzle but hopefully one I am going to figure out sooner rather than later.
— Rory McIlroy on Augusta National

"And then last year, the fourth hole and the 11th hole I think I played both of those in a combined nine-over par. 

"If play those in even par I win my three. So it's been a different thing every time, but if I can make sure that my short game is as sharp as it can be and I play the par-fives well, I will usually have a good chance."

Unravelling the puzzle that is Augusta National is a constant challenge for McIlroy, who has his share of demons lurking around those manicured 365 acres.

"It's the one major venue that you know more than any others, so there are so many different memories in your head from — Ok, I remember when I hit it there and what it's going to do, or you can't miss it there. 

"There are so many variables rolling around in your head, and that's different to any other venue. It's quite the puzzle but hopefully one I am going to figure out sooner rather than later."

McGinley believes McIlroy has played enough quality golf to consider himself ready for the Masters.

"His confidence is right where it needs to be," McGinley said. "So it is all kind of lined up for Rory. Now it is a question of concentration, a good game plan and also a little bit of lady luck." 

McIlroy has more issues than just the fourth and the 11th at Augusta, but McGinley is convinced that the world number two is relishing the challenge.

"If you want to be a champion and you want to join the greats, and you want to win the grand slam and join so few people in the history of the game of golf, you have to be able to overcome hurdles. And that's what makes those people so special and so great. They can overcome those hurdles.   

"He's contended in Bau Hill, he's contended down in Mexico. He would have contended here this week. He's been very unfortunate this week. Four under par and losing his game, when he would have won 90 percent of matches, to a very, very good Soren Kjeldsen.  Then there's the walkover and all of a sudden he's out. 

"So I think he is in a really good spot and maybe having the weekend off and having the extra days practice and keeping his spirits up the way he has done by playing so well this week  and not getting tarnished with a bad performance, is going to help him in a few weeks' time."