AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Masters is two weeks away, and all the best players are winning.
Except for one.
“I’d love to win before Augusta,” Rory McIlroy said. “And this is my last chance to do that.”
He is the defending champion at the Dell Match Play, which any other week would seem to be in his favor. The nature of that victory — not to mention it was at Harding Park in San Francisco and not Austin Country Club — would explain that’s not the case.
McIlroy had to birdie his last three holes to force overtime with Billy Horschel and beat him in 20 holes. Paul Casey had a birdie putt to beat him in the quarterfinals, missed, and McIlroy won in 22 holes. He had to finish birdie-birdie-eagle against Jim Furyk to reach the finals.
Winning has as much to do with good fortune as good form.
Whether it matters that McIlroy wins the first major of the year is up for debate.
Jordan Spieth last year won the Valspar Championship in a playoff, was runner-up in his next two events and went wire-to-wire to win a green jacket. Phil Mickelson won the BellSouth Classic by 13 shots a week before he won the Masters in 2006.
But only two other Masters champions over the last 10 years — Bubba Watson in 2012 (Riviera) and Charl Schwartzel in 2011 (Joburg Open) won before Augusta.
Adam Scott never seriously contended before he won in 2013. This year, he already has won twice.
“Winning is very important,” Scott said. “It’s huge for the confidence. I think in ‘13, I was just very content with where my game was going into the Masters. I didn’t win but I was very comfortable that everything was in the right place. Then, preparation was very good. I had a good idea of what I needed to do to get the stars to align in Augusta. You could see it happening in the practice rounds there, and it was just a matter of staying calm and executing. And I guess that’s what it’s all about when you’re on form.”
McIlroy surely is paying attention to what’s going on around him.
Spieth opened the year with an eight-shot victory in Kapalua in which became only the second player in PGA Tour history to reach 30-under par in a 72-hole event. Two weeks later, Rickie Fowler won in Abu Dhabi against a field that included Spieth, McIlroy and Henrik Stenson.
Watson won at Riviera and finished one shot behind at Doral. And then last week, Jason Day emerged from a four-man race at Bay Hill by coming up with two clutch shots at the end to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational and move past McIlroy to No. 2 in the world.
Your play, Rory.
“Everyone is running in good form,” McIlroy said. “And they’re all good champions — a few of them are Masters champions. Everyone is playing well, and that’s really what you want to do. You want your game rounding into form and play to the best of your abilities this time of year.”
McIlroy doesn’t not appear to be pressing, nor should be.
It helps to be playing well, though it’s not mandatory. Angel Cabrera can attest to that. He missed two straight cuts and didn’t break par at either tournament, and then won the Masters in 2009. Anyone see that coming?
Tiger Woods won at least one time before all four of his Masters victories. That’s never a good measure because Woods was rarely ever playing anything but great.
Jack Nicklaus didn’t win in six tries before the 1965 Masters, which he won by nine shots over Gary Player and Arnold Palmer. It’s safe to say he was playing well, however. In those six tournaments, his worst finish was a tie for eighth in Phoenix. The next year, Nicklaus didn’t win any of his four pre-Masters starts and then became the first player to win back-to-back at Augusta.
McIlroy only cares about playing well, and he at least has that going for him.
He lost a three-shot lead in the final round at Doral by playing for pars until he found it difficult to make birdies. He looked great at Bay Hill except for those six double bogeys, the most he has ever made in a PGA Tour event. He also tied for third in Abu Dhabi.
“I’m probably not quite where they are, and I haven’t had the confidence of getting a win this year,” McIlroy said. “But I feel like it’s close. And this would obviously be a great week to get that win, or at least get close to that win, if I can get a few really good matches under my belt and progress to the weekend and play some good golf. I feel that’s all I need confidencewise going into Augusta.”