It's been a rather interesting 12 months for Rory McIlroy. A year ago, he headed into the Masters as the No. 2 player in the world and easily the top young star in the game. Following a year filled with on-course struggles and off-course headlines, McIlroy heads into Augusta this week as the No. 9 player in the world. His game, however, may be as sharp as ever and everything appears to be in place for McIlroy to contend for his first green jacket.
He doesn't need a strong Masters to proclaim he's back because he never really left, even with a down year. But winning the Masters would certainly put an end to a lot of the questions of the past year. And to do it, all he'll need to do is win on American soil for the first time in more than a year and a half and do it at the place of one of his biggest failures.
McIlroy appeared on his way to a green jacket in 2011, opening the Masters with a 65 and holding the first, second and third-round leads. In infamous fashion, it all came crashing down on Sunday and he shot an 80 to finish in a tie for 15th place. McIlroy admitted this week that the final round in 2011 was "probably the only time I've cried over golf."
Now, three years later, everything appears to be lining up for a major comeback for the former No. 1 player in the world. For much of the last year, McIlroy's simply hasn't been in top form. Whether it was from equipment changes, off-the-course distractions or whatever reasoning was thrown out, he plain and simple wasn't playing well enough to compete in a field of 49 of the top 50 players in the world like he'll face this week. He hasn't lit the world on fire by any means this season, but his game is back. He appeared to be better than ever at the Honda Classic, opening with rounds of 63 and 66. That form was back on display in his last competitive round before heading to Augusta, closing the Shell Houston Open with a 65 to match the low round of last week's tournament.
Being in good form is one thing -- dozens of players will head into the Masters playing well -- but few have the game to fit Augusta National this week as well as McIlroy. Historically, the course has been dominated by the longer hitters. That changes some when hot dry conditions allow for more roll, but with rain this week softening things up, the shorter hitters will be at a major disadvantage. Enter Rory McIlroy. He is notorious for hitting the ball as high -- if not higher --than any other player in golf. Those moon shots will come in handy this week and his distance should give him an advantage over much of the field.
McIlroy is playing his sixth Masters. In the previous five, he's proven to have all the skill needed to win. He has the distance (No. 2 in driving distance in 2011), can hit greens (t-3 in GIR in 2011) and can master the tricky Augusta greens (T-5 in 2009). He hasn't put it all together in a single tournament, but he's proven he's fully capable.
So what will be the key to McIlroy claiming a green jacket? It starts on the par-4s.
Rory McIlroy's infamous journey to the cabins in the woods off the 10th fairway in 2011, where his great unraveling started. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
During his Masters career, McIlroy has dominated the par-5s, playing them at 21-under. He's avoided major issues on the par-3s, playing them at 4-over. The real problems have been on the par-4s, where he is 25-over. He played them at even in 2011 and would have won the green jacket if not for the final-round implosion. A lot of those troubles came on par-4s, with him recording a triple bogey on No. 10 and following it up with a bogey on No. 11 to drop from 11-under to 7-under. He's struggled on the par-4s since, finishing 11-over in 2012 and 7-over in 2013, according to Golfstats.com. If he plays the par-4s anywhere close to even this week, the green jacket is likely his for the taking.
McIlroy can't reclaim the No. 1 spot in the world this week, but he's been on the right track to taking back that title. And with his Nike friend unable to go, Rory might just prove it this week with a win that would reinforce the theme that this is a transitional Masters.