Rory ready for Masters onslaught — but serene Scheffler looks unflappable

Rory ready for Masters onslaught — but serene Scheffler looks unflappable
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays a shot on the 11th hole during a practice round prior to the 2023 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

There are many subplots to the 2023 Masters that only require a single word for golf watchers to understand – Rory, Scottie, Tiger, LIV – all have resonance at the season’s first major.

Can Rory McIlroy break his duck at Augusta and complete the career Grand Slam? Will defending champion Scottie Scheffler become only the fourth man to win the Masters in consecutive years? Can Tiger Woods stun the world again and equal Jack Nicklaus’ haul of six green jackets and win his 16th major? Will one of the 18 LIV golf rebels emerge victorious on Sunday night [SA time], which would further entrench and legitimise the breakaway tour?

Every year the Masters is awash with storylines, some real and some manufactured, but one truism is constant – the best player over the four rounds emerges as the winner.

It’s hard to recall a single winner who didn’t earn it. Yes, some players have a meltdown at some stage – Greg Norman in 1996 and McIlroy in 2011 are examples – but in those cases the eventual winner is the one that is there to take advantage of someone else’s misfortune.

Sometimes someone runs away from the field – Woods in 1997 was a case in point – and most times two or more contenders slug it out with the winner emerging thanks to one or two great shots.

McIlroy’s chance?

World No 2 Rory McIlroy couldn’t be in better shape coming into the tournament with three wins this season already. He’s hot and will have good memories after shooting a final round 64 in 2022 to make a run at the unflappable Scheffler. It was too little, too late last year, but it has given the Ulsterman confidence.

“I just feel like I’ve got all the ingredients to make the pie,” McIlroy told the media in reference to his chances of winning. “Now it’s a case of just putting all those ingredients in, setting the oven to the right temperature, and letting it all sort of come to fruition.

“Obviously the last time this tournament was played I walked away from the course pretty happy with myself.

“I proved to myself that I could do it. As much as I didn’t really get into contention, there was part of me on the back nine last year that thought I had a chance. To play the way I did, and eagle 13 and have those feelings, in my mind anyway, I felt like it was a breakthrough.”

Woods, the man that inspired McIlroy and many others in the field to take up the game, believes that McIlroy is destined to win at Augusta. At 33 though, time is not infinite for McIlroy.

Nicklaus and Gary Player once said the same about Ernie Els – that his game was perfect for Augusta and he would win a green jacket – and with each near miss the scar tissue built up. The longer it goes on for McIlroy the harder it will become.

“I would say the thing that has held me back in the past has been mental or emotional struggles, rather than physical,” McIlroy said. “I’ve always felt like I have the physical ability to win this tournament.

“But it’s being in the right headspace to let those physical abilities shine through. And I feel like I’m in a great head space at the moment – although I obviously wouldn’t tell you if it felt terrible.”

Woods, who knows a good golfer when he sees one, was unequivocal.

“Rory will win here – it’s just a matter of time,” Woods said. “He has all the tools to do it and will complete the Grand Slam here one day.”

As for himself, Woods conceded that he is unlikely to contend in his 25th Masters. With only one competitive tournament in the bank this season, it would be a golfing miracle if he won.

“I don’t know how many more I have left in me, it’s just being able to appreciate the time I have here and cherish the memories,” Woods said.

After his horror car crash in 2021, which crushed his leg, he noticeably limps, especially in the latter stages of rounds.

“I think my game is better than it was last year at this particular time,” Woods said. “I think my endurance is better. But it aches a little bit more than it did last year just because when I came back, I really had not pushed it that often. And I had a little window in which I did push it and was able to come back.

“The joy is different now,” Woods said of his relationship with golf. “It’s harder. I don’t play as many tournaments, I don’t practise as much. I’m limited in what I can do.

“I’ve been able to spend more time with my son, Charlie, and we’ve been able to create our own memories out there. Some of the things that I experienced with my dad, the late-night sessions that we did at the Navy Golf Course, I’m now doing with my son. It’s incredible, the bonding and the moments that come because of this sport.”

Second for Scheffler?

masters scheffler

Scottie Scheffler of the United States plays his shot from the third tee during a practice round prior to the 2023 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo: Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images)

Seldom does the defending champion drive down Magnolia Lane in the form of his life, but Scheffler is primed to join Woods, Nick Faldo and Nicklaus as back-to-back Masters winners.

He won the Players Championship last month and is cemented at No 1 in the world. He was unflustered on his way to victory in 2022, when he arrived at Augusta in similar form.

Scheffler has won seven tournaments in the past 14 months. Everything points to a strong defence of the Masters title.

“Just because it’s The Masters and it is what it is, and it’s such a special tournament that I think we build it up so much in our heads,” Scheffler told the media.

“As far as my preparation goes, I’ve kept things pretty similar to what they were last year, outside of getting here a few hours earlier on Sunday so I could play more golf.

“When the tournament starts on Thursday, everybody starts even par. Just because you’re defending doesn’t mean I get to start at one under. I’ll be approaching it just like I do a lot of other tournaments.

“Legacy at the end of this is not really why I play. With that being said, any time you can get mentioned in the same breath as a Tiger and a Jack and a Nick Faldo is really special, but it’s not a motivating factor for me to come out here and play.

“It’s so special and cool when it happens, but it doesn’t motivate me out here. I’m just trying to come out here and do my best and play good golf and have fun. Legacy is a complicated thing. In 100 years, I’m going to be forgotten and it’s not a big deal.”

LIV contingent

While the general mood at Augusta has been one of bonhomie between the PGA Tour players and the breakaway LIV golfers, there is still some spikiness in the air.

LIV Golf boss Greg Norman told The Telegraph that if one of the 18 LIV players in the field won, the other 17 would “celebrate on the 18th green”.

“They’ve [the LIV players] said that if one of them wins then the other 17 will hang around and be there to congratulate him around the 18th green,” he said. “Could you imagine what a scene that would be, all these players hugging the winner? You only see things like that in the Ryder Cup, although it’s happening in our events more and more.”

masters koepka

Brooks Koepka of the United States plays his shot from the third tee during a practice round prior to the 2023 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

Brooks Koepka, the four-time major winner won last week’s LIV event in Florida and is in a confident mood after several years of injury problems.

When asked how his game was compared with four years ago when he threatened to dominate men’s golf, Koepka was bullish.

“Yeah, I do feel like I’m creeping up on that [form],” he said after last week’s win.” There’s not much of a difference. I’m controlling the ball the way I want to, moving it left to right, right to left, and I’m putting good again.

“I’ve worked hard with [coach] Jeff Pierce over the last few months on that, getting a little more comfortable going back, watching video, just how things were in ’18 and ’19, and I’ve got no doubt that I’ll return to that form.

“I just don’t know whether it’s going to be right now in two months, whatever it’s going to be, but I’m damn near knocking on the door, if not here.” DM


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