McIlroy's Augusta recovery can be a crucial learning curve for rookie Rahm


There was an inevitable sense of intrigue and excitement when Rory McIlroy was paired with Jon Rahm in the opening round at the Masters.

Not since McIlroy in 2009, perhaps with the exception of Jordan Spieth two years ago, had a rookie arrived at Augusta with such high expectations.

There was almost a wonderful piece of symmetry with both men teeing up at the 18th on level par before a bogey at the last from Rahm changed that outcome.

How they arrived at such a position, though, was in stark contrast and amplified golf's fascinating psychology.

For much of his opening round, Rahm, who turned professional after finishing as the high amateur at last year's U.S. Open, proved why there has been so much justifiable buzz around his rise, playing with a carefree attitude as he tackled Augusta competitively for the first time.

He was playing true to the form that has made him 2017's breakout star. This is a man that won a first PGA Tour title in January and, perhaps more impressively, earned back-to-back top-three placings in World Golf Championship events, including a runner-up finish to world number one Dustin Johnson at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

The attributes that brought about those achievements were in full display for long periods at Augusta. The big hitting off the tee, the coolness with the putter, the neat touches around the greens. Pre-requisites to win the Masters. 

But, as so many have learned before him, Augusta is always waiting to pounce on any error and there was an almost anti-climactic feel as Rahm stumbled late in the day.

The momentum was lost at 16. After witnessing McIlroy send his tee shot to within four feet of the pin, Rahm's ball trickled around his playing partner's and finished almost adjacent.

Yet, Rahm fluffed a presentable chance to move two under, while McIlroy coolly drained his putt. Perhaps that set understandable jitters in motion as the 22-year-old finished bogey-bogey to card a one-over par 73.

There had been warning signs earlier in the round. A brief flirtation with Rae's Creek on the 13th followed a clumsy bogey at 12 as Rahm, for the first time in his round, started to struggle with the stiff challenge posed by Augusta's undulating layout.

McIlroy, of course, knows the potential pitfalls of the venue all too well. Although he has won four majors, he has yet to triumph in the Masters and fully heal the wounds inflicted by his final-round meltdown in 2011.

For two thirds of his round on Thursday, McIlroy appeared in danger of falling out of contention - a struggle to find his rhythm leaving the Northern Irishman three over par.

Yet, as Rahm began to show nerves, McIlroy toughed it out and showed the brilliance that makes him arguably the most gifted player in the game. 

McIlroy was frustratingly sidelined by a rib injury in January, but during his time away he applied plenty of focus to a short game that must be at its best if he is to succeed at Augusta.

That work started to pay dividends. A wonderful wedge at 15 was followed by a fine 13-foot birdie putt, which set the tone for his genius at 16.

It may yet prove a crucial recovery. A level-par 72 on a day when blustery winds made low scoring difficult is a more than handy score, even if surprise leader Charley Hoffman is seven shots clear.

But playing alongside McIlroy, whose experience of Augusta is considerable for a player still only 27, will also provide a valuable lesson to Rahm.

And if Rahm can quickly emulate McIlroy's revival and shake off his end-of-round blip, there is still every chance that a record of just one rookie Masters victor in 81 years can be changed come Sunday.