MIAMI | The Masters is less than a month away but even at the WGC-Cadillac Championship last week, it was hard for some people, particularly Rory McIlroy, to avoid thinking about what lies ahead at Augusta National.
After ascending to No. 1 in the world rankings the week before with his triumph at the Honda Classic, McIlroy said he came to Doral feeling a tad flat mentally and emotionally. He got out of the doldrums with a third-round 65 that surely lifted his spirits and now, he’s taking the next three weeks off to prepare for the first major of the year.
“This week, next week and the next couple of weeks, I’ll be thinking toward Augusta,” he said after Friday’s round, when he found himself 10 shots off the halfway lead. “That’s what I’m going to build myself up for. If I was in contention, it probably would not be on my mind that much. But seeing where I am on the leaderboard, it’s on my mind a little bit more.”
Still, after such a delicious start to the 2012 golf season, including Bubba Watson’s bombs-away triumph at Doral Sunday, how could Georgia not be on everyone’s mind these days considering what we’ve seen so far from so many of the game’s grandest names and up-and-coming future stars.
McIlroy’s stunning performance in the Honda, when he met the challenge of Tiger Woods’ Sunday 62 with some brilliant shot-making of his own to protect a two-shot lead down the stretch, may well have been the most stirring finish of the season considering what was at stake for both men.
And Woods’ bogey-free 62, with a birdie-eagle finish, may have been the most conclusive proof of all that he is almost ready to ride the big horse once again. Maybe not dominate the way he once did, but certainly win again, majors and minors, even if it does happen on a slightly less regular basis.
“Obviously Tiger is back doing only outrageous things that Tiger can do,” Graeme McDowell, his playing partner Sunday at the Honda, said that day. “And you know, we have got a world-class field around him now as well. For Rory to go out with a two-shot lead and have Tiger shoot 62 and Lee Westwood shoot 63, it just shows you how hard it is to win golf tournaments on any tour in the world … This golf season just got a lot more spicy.”
The week before the Honda it was Hunter Mahan grinding his way through the World Match Play field and then beating McIlroy in the final round, once again establishing himself as a formidable foe. Like McDowell, Mahan also loves what he sees at the very top of his sport.
“I think the game is in a good place,” Mahan said this week. “The difference between the No. 1 ranked player and the 20th and 30th ranked player isn’t that big any more. I think we know a lot more about the game than we used to. I think the education on the golf swing has grown exponentially.
“I think guys are figuring a lot more things out for themselves and learning a lot more than they used to, and the result is it’s pretty tight at the top. So many guys can win tournaments nowadays, especially in WGCs or majors. And it’s pretty incredible when you do win an event because you have to beat so many good players.”
Mahan gives a lot of the credit for the current state of the game to Woods’ just-win-baby mentality. He said he still vividly remembers an interview Woods had with Curtis Strange at the 1997 Masters and what a profound affect its had on his own thinking.
“He told Curtis ‘I want to win, I’m coming out here to win tournaments,’ ” Mahan recalled. “And Curtis was like well, top-fives are good, top-10s are good. Tiger was like well, no, I’m not coming out just to have fun, I want to win. Curtis was beating on him, saying, ‘Oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’
“And then (Woods) comes out and we realized there is nothing stopping you from winning eight tournaments in a year, to win $10 million in a year. I don’t think that win (at the ’97 Masters) motivated me any more, but I think his attitude did and the way he went about his business did. It opened doors for us to realize that you know what, we can do anything in this game if we want to.”
Certainly that has been the sort of power of positive thinking Phil Mickelson has always seemed to take, even if he didn’t quite match Woods’ level of success. Then again he’s also had a rousing resurgence this year, with a victory at Pebble Beach and a playoff loss the following week at Riviera, and should properly be considered among the favorites in Augusta next month.
He also likes what he’s seen at the top of the game this year.
“We have not had somebody play to the level of Tiger,” he said. “And so we have four, five, six guys battling for the No. 1 spot, it seems, monthly… I’m glad to be back in the mix. I’m glad to be back playing well again, to be making putts again.”
Always a good sign a month before what’s clearly shaping up as a most memorable Masters.