Tiger, Slam

Woods ‘right there where I need to be,’ McIl­roy one jacket from im­mor­tal­ity

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - SPORTS - By Doug Fer­gu­son

AU­GUSTA, Ga. — The Mas­ters should have been the first ma­jor Rory McIl­roy won.

Now it is the only one he is miss­ing. Au­gusta Na­tional was thought to be the do­main of Tiger Woods when he won four green jack­ets be­fore turn­ing 30.

Now he is 43, with eight surg­eries be­hind him, so far re­moved from his last Mas­ters vic­tory that the club has changed chair­men twice since he last won 14 years ago.

McIl­roy and Woods are the cen­tral fig­ures at the 83rd Mas­ters, which starts Thurs­day. They share the stage with a cast of char­ac­ters that gets deeper and stronger every year, so tough that 23 of the last 25 ma­jor cham­pi­ons were among the top 25 in the world rank­ing.

One is look­ing to join the most elite group in golf by cap­tur­ing the fi­nal leg of the ca­reer Grand Slam.

The other is look­ing to re­cap­ture glory on a course where his red shirt was blaz­ing among the aza­leas, dog­woods and all the col­ors of spring­time in Au­gusta.

Woods has al­ways had a hold on the Mas­ters, so much that his Sun­day shirt packed as much in­ter­est as the green jacket. To see him two years ago walk gin­gerly to the Mas­ters Club din­ner for past cham­pi­ons was to won­der if he would ever shine at Au­gusta, much less play. It was only a few weeks later that Woods had a fourth surgery on his back to fuse the lower spine.

He not only re­turned, Woods capped his re­mark­able come­back by win­ning in Ge­or­gia last year for his 80th ca­reer vic­tory on the PGA Tour. But it was at East Lake in late Septem­ber, not at Au­gusta Na­tional the sec­ond week in April.

Is his come­back com­plete with­out a ma­jor?

Woods last year was still learn­ing what his fused back was ca­pa­ble of do­ing. He was com­ing off two close calls in Florida, but he didn’t break par at the Mas­ters un­til the fi­nal day, when it was much too late.

Now he is build­ing, and while his re­sults in five tour­na­ments this year have not been any­thing spe­cial, Woods has been gearing for this week.

“I’m right there where I need to be,” he said. “I’ve got­ten a lit­tle bit more con­sis­tent with my play, and I think that ev­ery­thing is headed on track to­ward April.”

His last two ma­jors were telling be­cause TV Thurs­day: Fri­day: Satur­day: Sun­day: he was in the hunt at both of them un­til the fi­nal hour. He briefly had the lead at Carnoustie in the British Open. He chased Brooks Koepka all the way to the fin­ish line in the PGA Cham­pi­onship.

McIl­roy had rea­son to think he would be al­lowed up­stairs in the cham­pi­ons’ locker room by now. It was in 2011 when he had a four-shot lead, only to throw it away with a tee shot be­hind the cab­ins, a four-putt from 12 feet, a wild drive along the aza­leas and an 80 on his score­card.

He re­sponded by win­ning four of the next 15 ma­jors, be­fore be­ing slowed by a few nag­ging in­juries.

This will be his fifth shot at the ca­reer Grand Slam, and he is get­ting closer. McIl­roy played in the fi­nal group last year with Pa­trick Reed, miss­ing a short ea­gle putt on the sec­ond hole that set the tone for his day. Al­ready this year, he has not fin­ished out of the top 10 in all seven of his tour­na­ments, in­clud­ing a vic­tory at The Play­ers Cham­pi­onship against the best field in golf.

Is he ex­cited? Hard to tell.

McIl­roy has spent the last year read­ing books on life and suc­cess, work­ing more on his at­ti­tude than his golf game. He is de­ter­mined not to let the sport de­fine his suc­cess. And it ap­pears to be pay­ing off. Las Ve­gas has in­stalled him as the fa­vorite at the Mas­ters.

“I would have said a cou­ple of years ago, ‘I need to win a Mas­ters, I need a green jacket,’ where now it’s, ‘I want to win it.’ And I’d love to win it,” he said. “But if I don’t, I’m OK. Maybe some peo­ple will say that I’m not mo­ti­vated enough. Be­lieve me, I am mo­ti­vated to make the most of what I have and to put my name among some of the greats of our game.”

This fig­ures to be his big­gest test. So pow­er­ful is the al­lure of Au­gusta Na­tional and the ex­clu­siv­ity of the club and its list of win­ners that play­ers have been haunted over the years at be­ing left out, whether it was Greg Nor­man or Tom Weiskopf, David Du­val or Tom Kite.

That’s just the mys­tique. Equally tough will be the play­ers Woods and McIl­roy are try­ing to beat.

EZRA SHAW/GETTY

Tiger Woods, left, is look­ing to re­cap­ture the glory at Au­gusta, while Rory McIl­roy is try­ing to cap­ture the fi­nal leg of the ca­reer Grand Slam.

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