Paul McGinley believes Rory McIlroy has the mental strength and the maturity to avoid becoming an Augusta nearly-man like Greg Norman and Ernie Els.
The Great White Shark and the Big Easy were hailed as certainties to win the Masters only to suffer a devastating series of disappointments,
But Sky Sports analyst McGinley sees a more mature and mellow McIlroy as capable of seeing off all comers this year, including the famous Augusta ghosts that lurk in those Georgia pines, to become just the sixth man to complete the career Grand Slam.
“I think the biggest challenge with the Masters is the history of it,” McGinley said. “The ghosts of Augusta are all over that back nine on a Sunday. Trying to get over the line and win a Masters is something everybody dreams about.
“The challenge he has is a bit like Greg Norman and Ernie Els. Everyone says his game is perfect for it and it’s only a matter of time before he wins at Augusta – but that’s the worst thing people could be saying. That just piles more pressure on you.”
The good news for McIlroy is that bar that blip against Tiger Woods in the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play last weekend, he's head and shoulders above everyone else this year,
“He has risen from nine in the world at the start of the year to three now, and he looks very impressive,” McGinley said.
“It is not just the run of having good results. I ran the stats last week and compared the best three months of his career in 2014 when he won two majors and a world golf event and they were almost identical. It’s unbelievable to see that.
“He is dominating everybody in the world off the tee. In strokes gained driving, he is nearly three times better than the next guy, completely dominating golf courses off the tee.
“Everything else is very comparable to 2014, including his putting, which is slightly better now. So it's a pretty formidable start to the season for McIlroy.”
McGinley does not doubt the Holywood star’s ability to handle pressure and believes that while the weight of history has stopped him getting the job done in the Masters thus far, he’s flicked a mental switch with the help of Brad Faxon that’s freed him up and allowed his talent to shine through again.
“We are seeing a more mellow McIlroy; we are seeing a more mature McIlroy and a more consistent McIlroy and all of those are going into a cocktail of very high performances week after week,” McGinley said. “And it's a question of being patient.
“Certainly listening to his interviews and looking at his body language, he is better prepared this year to overcome the mental obstacles of trying to win the Grand Slam than he has ever been.”
McGinley frequently refers to McIlroy’s “pointy elbows” — that innate determination to barge his way to the front of the bunch and go for the line.
“He certainly exemplified it in Sawgrass where he played the last ten holes in four under par when other guys were dropping shots,” McGinley said of McIlroy’s win at The Players.
“He played the last four holes impeccably to get over the line. That's what I mean by pointy elbows — seeing the finishing line and being able to drive himself over that line.
“It's too early to say it's 100 per cent there again. But certainly, the signs are very strong. This is probably the best golf I have ever seen McIlroy play these last three months and I have followed his career very closely.”
The mental game has been key to McIlroy’s improvement, and it’s clear that Brad Faxon far more than just a putting consultant.
“What it is all about is getting out of your own way and letting your creativeness come through, and that's where McIlroy has been with Brad Faxon,” McGinley said.
“We all know how talented he is, and basically that free-flowing talent is coming through. It is not being stifled.”
There is just one lingering doubt in McGinley’s mind and that’s McIlroy’s poor performance against Woods last Saturday, especially on the greens.
“It was a worry no doubt,” he said. “Not so much losing to Tiger Woods, but the fact that his performance dropped so much. His putting performance fell off a cliff. Of the 16 players playing that morning, he was last in putting for that one day.
“But the important thing is that he would have learned from it, and maybe it’s a really good thing that he came off the boil a little bit going into Augusta, because it will make him go away and analyse what happened in that round — and just when he needed it most, playing against Tiger.”
As for Woods and Shane Lowry, McGinley knows both men are capable of great things, especially Woods.
“Hopefully he's going to raise a gallop because it will be a much better Masters if he's in contention,” he said of Woods.
Lowry has lost form since winning in Abu Dhabi in January but McGinley is not ruling him out after seeing Danny Willett storm through on the back nine on Sunday to win three years ago.
“I think Shane is one of the most under-rated players in the professional game,” he said. “Great driver of the ball, great iron player, and he has a wonderful short game, as we all know. His putting is streaky. It’s in and out.
“But when it’s good it’s really good, a bit like Darren Clarke’s used to be, and he’s certainly got the guile to get over the finishing line when he sees it. So you’d never discount a player of his ability.”`
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