Rory McIlroy keen to start Masters preparations ‘as late as possible’

Rory McIlroy is trying to keep thoughts of joining golf’s most elite club by completing the career grand slam out of his mind for as long as humanly possible.

McIlroy needs to win the Masters to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in having claimed all four major titles.

The 30-year-old has finished inside the top 10 in four of his last five starts at Augusta National and was in the last group in the final round in 2018, only to struggle to a closing 74 and end up six shots behind playing partner Patrick Reed.

Rory McIlroy has won the Claret Jug but the green jacket still eludes him
Rory McIlroy has won the Claret Jug but the green jacket still eludes him

Asked ahead of the Arnold Palmer Invitational when he starts gearing up for the Masters, McIlroy told reporters: “For some people it starts the Monday they arrive at Augusta, for some people it started in January. I think it’s different for everyone.

“For me what I realise is I can’t make things too big in my head; if I started to try and gear up for Augusta in January, by the time Augusta got around in April my head would be absolutely fried.

“I try to push it out as late as possible. I’ve got four tournaments to play between now and then and my biggest concern and my top priority are those four tournaments.

“I don’t think anything trumps execution in this game so it’s just getting your game in good form, playing enough competitive rounds, shooting good scores.

“It’s not as if I’m out on whatever hole here and thinking, ‘this is the fifth hole at Augusta and this is the tee shot I need’. Some guys might do that but for me if I’m playing good golf that’s the most important thing.”

McIlroy’s win at Bay Hill in 2018 ended an 18-month victory drought and the four-time major winner believes that was the catalyst for his climb back to the top of the world rankings.

“I came here a few years ago off the back of a missed cut in Tampa and sort of a little lost with my game, especially with my putting, and spent an afternoon with Brad Faxon at The Bear’s Club,” McIlroy added.

“I then came up there and obviously something stuck with me from that afternoon and was able to win and that was my first win in 500-and-whatever days so I feel like this place has a lot of special memories to me.

“It was definitely the catalyst to do what I’ve done over the past two years and ascend back to the top of the world rankings. It’s good to be back, the course is in phenomenal shape, it’s as good as I’ve seen it.

“It’s nice to get back on Bermuda greens after the few weeks on poa (annua, a type of grass). Everything’s good, the game feels in good shape and I’m looking forward to getting going.”

Pre-tournament favourite McIlroy revealed he shot a three-under-par 69 in Wednesday’s pro-am, but that was one shot too many to win a standing bet with caddie Harry Diamond.

To keep McIlroy focused on what can be long days alongside his amateur pro-am partners, Diamond sets McIlroy a target score to beat, with the “loser” having to buy dinner.

“It keeps me on the straight and narrow I guess but I lost by one shot,” McIlroy joked. “The target was four under and I shot three under even with that birdie on the last.”