Cool McIlroy can join elite group
Sport

Cool McIlroy can join elite group

WHERE do you start with Rory McIlroy?   How can we place his greatness in context?

Is it when you go through history to acknowledge that he is one of just 210 men to have the title of Major Champion accompanying their name?

Or is it when you acknowledge that only 14 men have won more Majors in their lifetime, than this 25-year-old has in his relatively short professional career, that you begin to appreciate the impact he has made in one of sport's most competitive arenas?

No, the point you begin to comprehend McIlroy's impact on world golf, is when you do the maths and realise that only one Irishman had been victorious in the first 398 Majors ever staged and that McIlroy has won four of the subsequent 32 contests.

If that impresses then bear in mind the following. Over the course of the last 30 years just three players have won more Major titles - Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo and Phil Mickleson.

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Still with us? Then count on the fact that already, even though he is just 25, McIlroy is the sixth most successful player in European golf's long history. Plus, he has won more Majors than Vijay Singh, Bernhard Langer, Jose Maria Olazabal, Tony Jacklin, Greg Norman and Freddie Couples.

Seve Ballesteros, regarded as Europe's greatest ever, retired with five Majors. McIlroy has four.

Soon he will have more. Conceivably he could become just the fourth player to win 10 or more Majors and just the sixth to complete a career Grand Slam.

And who is to say that won't happen this Sunday at Augusta, the course he blew up on in 2011 when he led after three rounds before undergoing a meltdown during the midway point of his final round?

Since then, his demons have been erased. Within two months of disaster at Augusta he triumphed at the US Open. By the end of 2012, he'd added the PGA to his CV. Last year saw him win the Open and the PGA. World number one, multiple tour winner, he is looking at a place in history, not alongside golfing immortals like Palmer, Watson, Ballesteros, Jones and Hogan - but ahead of them.

"This guy could catch Nicklaus' haul," said Padraig Harrington.   "Ah Paddy, stop," replied McIlroy.

But as the years pass and the trophies add up, it is no longer becoming an impossible chase but a potential goal.

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If McIlroy wins this Sunday he will be three quarters of the way to equalling Tiger Woods' accomplishment of holding all four Majors at the one time. Can he handle that pressure?

There is no reason to suspect he can't, bearing in mind how he got his career, and his life, back together last year in spite of the high profile break-up of his relationship with Caroline Wosniacki and the ongoing legal dispute he was enduring with his former management team, Horizon.

Yet he played well, superbly well, finishing in the top ten in 12 of his last 17 PGA events, three of which he has won.

How do you explain that? Part of it comes down to the unnerving confidence which he has had right through his life. But part of it also stems from his decision to burn the puppy-fat and focus on honing his physique as well as his technique.

“At the start I needed to do it. But now I want to do it," McIlroy told the recent edition of Mens Health magazine. "Now it’s part of my life. It’s become part of my routine, I enjoy it. I love getting up in the morning. I love the feeling of sweating. It’s a great feeling, you feel like you’ve worked hard, it’s a great way to start your day.”

Yet he's careful about the exercises he does. Too much muscle building could damage his swing. Too little and he won't lengthen his distance off the tee. Yet last year, he appeared to have got the balance right as only two players drove the ball further.

Better again, his accuracy was high. And so were his finishes - those results on the PGA tour complemented with eight top-two finishes in his last 15 world wide tournaments.

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So he approaches Augusta in form and as the man to beat. Yet just because he is on song, nothing is guaranteed. Not in this sport.

"Rory has it in him to be one of the greats," said Colin Montgomerie, who will be reporting for Sky in Augusta. "As big as Tiger Woods? Yes, but not yet. Tiger shaped golf. Don't forget that."

“Who knows about Tiger? He would not be practising if he didn't think he could contend. He is one of a number of good golfers behind Rory. Jordan Speith, Henrik Stenson, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson. They have all taken up the baton.

"So while Rory is good enough to win the Masters, there will be a lot of pressure on him. Should he play to his potential, though, then he won't need to worry about leaderboards.

"He has won the last two Majors. Lets hope he can do it again."

If he does, he'll join an elite grouping.

Only five men - Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan and Gary Player - have won a career Grand Slam. By this Sunday, golf's Mount Rushmore may need a sixth name carved onto its face.

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