Rory McIlroy returns to the scene of his ‘Meltdown’ looking to exact revenge.

      • Northern Irish world No.2 is hoping to turn around his poor form of this season.
      • Relinquished a four-stroke lead that he held after three rounds in 2011.
      • Signs of form after runner-up finish in Texas Open last week.
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Golf fans are dreaming of showdown between Rory and Tiger on Sunday.

One of the more hotly anticipated sub-plots at Augusta this week is the curious case of Rory McIlroy. He hasn’t looked the brilliant, world-beating superstar who officially achieved super-stardom. 2012 was simply a fantastic year for the young Irish starlet. Personal accolades were awarded copiously; Race To Dubai Champion, PGA Player of the Year, PGA Tour Player of the Year, Vardon Trophy winner, recipient of the Byron Nelson award, European Tour Golfer of the Year. Tournament wins were also frequent; The Honda Classic, PGA Championship, Deutsche Bank Championship and the BMW Championship, becoming the first European to win four events in a regular PGA Tour season. In addition, he also won the European Tour’s curtain-closer DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.

This week is Rory’s shot at redemption, a chance to recapture the ecstasy of last year’s triumphs. Unfortunately for Rory, he returns to the scene of arguably his most worst performance on a golf course since turning professional. It’s an intriguing prospect, watching to see if McIlroy can answer this season’s critics at the same place where his critics first came afoot two years ago.

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McIlroy looks to banish the demons of his 2011 Masters collapse.

McIlroy’s roller-coaster story at Augusta two years ago was a shining example of what drama this sport can have. On the wrong end of a compelling and unforgettable narrative, a dejected McIlroy imploded on the back-nine to fritter away his commanding four-shot lead and pave the way for South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel to claim his first Green Jacket. One hopes that Augusta doesn’t descend into the most immaculate nightmare for McIlroy like it did for another former World Number One. Greg Norman was never able to capture a Masters title when everyone assumed he would end his career with a wardrobe full of Green Jackets. Norman’s worst and finest hour came in 1996 when he blew a six-shot lead and gifted the Masters to a stumped Nick Faldo. However, the hear of a lion thumping, Norman lifted Faldo’s hand in the air at the close of the tournament in a heartwarming sentiment that induced waves of sympathy from the Augusta patrons. Despite Norman’s endearing professionalism and spirit, he was never able to conquer the Augusta monkey on his back. McIlroy won’t be comparing his golfing career to anyone, nevermind Norman, but he will hope that he can extinguish any prevailing parallels between himself and the Shark.

However, McIlroy rose gloriously from the depths of despair to spread-eagle the field at the US Open two months later and claim an 8-stroke victory with the finest example of panache, elegance and composure and the exact antithesis of a despairing boy who staggered pitilessly on the final green of Augusta in 2011.

Similarly last season during his year of prominence, McIlroy endured a sticky spell when he missed four cuts in five tournaments in the summer. Observers wrote McIlroy’s season off at their peril and humiliation as he again sprinted clear to win a major championship on a canter at the PGA Championship in August. Character personified.

This week now, he is primed for Augusta and is hungry to claim a third major at the age of 23. If he is to succeed, he will have to tame a resurgent Tiger, but he has emphasised that he is primarily focussed on his own game. When asked about Woods’ striking return to form, he replied: “It doesn’t make a difference to me at all, I’m here to concentrate on myself and play my game. It really doesn’t matter what anyone else does, because I’m here to try and shoot the best score that I can and, if I can do that, I know I’ll have a good chance.”

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McIlroy insists he is comfortable with his Nike equipment and is here to win.

The outlook coming into this week isn’t as optimistic as it has been for the Northern Irishman, but he has endorsed his claim for Augusta glory after opting to “play his way into form” by entering last week’s Texas Open and finishing runner-up to champion Martin Laird, showing signs of a resurgent Rory in the process. Whatever his form, Rory remains defiant that he enters a tournament to win, not just to gain form or pick up appearance fees.

“Every time you come here to Augusta you’re wanting to win that Green Jacket and every time that you don’t it’s another chance missed, I guess.” McIlroy explained yesterday at his press conference. “But if I’m sitting here on Sunday night and I’ve finished second or if I have given it a good run, I couldn’t be too disappointed because I would have had a great tournament. But the ultimate goal is getting one of those jackets.”

McIlroy’s struggles this season have been well documented and directly attributed to his high-profile switch in equipment to Nike. In a deal worth around £28million for Rory, many thought it was a golfing warrior being handed his fated sword and who would go onto to wield it with purpose and invincibility. But such a tale has far from materialised and Rory is being forced to constantly deflect attention of his equipment away from his form.

“I’m very comfortable and I’m 100% there,” said the Northern Irishman of his new clubs. “It’s definitely not the clubs, that’s for sure. That’s what I’ve found out over the past few weeks. It’s more me. I wanted to do it all at the start of the year. I didn’t want to leave it for a while and say I would put something in the bag in dribs and drabs” he spoke of his Nike clubs.

The signs have become promising as he reveals it is work in progress and not something which was destined to explode brilliantly right from the beginning. McIlroy’s matured realism seems to suggest that he is no longer the boy who moped down the fairways back in 2011, he is a man on a mission; to reclaim the World Number One spot and to enact revenge on the beautiful but dangerous Augusta.

  • Other news from Augusta this week includes the withdrawal of McIlroy’s friend and fellow countryman, Darren Clarke. The 2011 Open Champion has been forced to pull out due to a hamstring strain which he has not recovered from. It is with deep regret that I will not be able to play at Augusta this year,” Clarke said on his official website. “Playing in The Masters is one of golf’s greatest pleasures and I am very disappointed to be missing out.”

First-round tee times

US unless stated
All times BST
1pm S Lyle (Sco),J Peterson, N Smith*
1.11 L Mize, B Gay, R Henley
1.22 I Woosnam (Wal), D Lynn (Eng), K Na
1.33 D Toms R Sterne (SA), T Potter Jr
1.44 T Watson, R Moore K Streelman
1.55 R Garrigus, C Pettersson (Swe), T Clark (SA)
2.06 M Weir (Can), L Westwood (Eng), J Furyk
2.17 B Snedeker, R Ishikawa (Jpn), J Rose (Eng)
2.28 J Olazábal (Sp), M Leishman (Aus), TJ Vogel*
2.39 C Schwartzel (SA), W Simpson, P Hanson (Swe)
2.50 Z Johnson, KJ Choi (Kor), G McDowell (NI)
3.12 M Thompson, J Huh, J Senden (Aus)
3.23 S Cink, N Colsaerts (Bel), T Wiratchant (Tha)
3.34 B Watson, I Poulter (Eng), S Fox*
3.45 T Woods, L Donald (Eng), S Piercy
3.56 J Day (Aus), R Fowler, P Harrington (Ire)
4.07 J Merrick, T Olesen (Den), D Points
4.18 C Stadler, B Curtis, M Weaver*
4.29 M O’Meara, M Laird (Sco), J Donaldson (Wal)
4.40 P Lawrie (Sco), T Bjorn (Den), G Fernández-Castaño (Sp)
4.51 T Immelman (SA), G Coetzee (SA), A Dunbar* (NI)
5.13 E Els (SA), S Stricker, N Watney
5.24 B Crenshaw, M Manassero (It) T Guan* (Chn)
5.35 B Langer (Ger), L Glover, H Stenson (Swe)
5.46 V Singh (Fij), B Van Pelt, YE Yang (Kor)
5.57 A Cabrera (Arg), S García (Sp), A Scott (Aus)
6.08 F Couples, D. Johnson, B Grace (SA)
6.19 H Mahan, H Fujita (Jpn), F Molinari (It)
6.30 P Mickelson, L Oosthuizen (SA), M Kaymer (Ger)
6.41 R McIlroy (NI), K Bradley, F Jacobson (Swe)
6.52 J Dufner, M Kuchar, B Haas
*denotes amateur

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About Matt Gault

Matt is a long-term These Football Times writer and co-author of A Tale of One City, Football's Fleeting Fraternity, The Academy Way and Masterminds. He supports Manchester United but also follows the fortunes of FK Qarabag in Azerbaijan. Based in Belfast, he is interested in the relationship between politics and football and rebellious footballers. Has been featured on The Guardian, FourFourTwo, WorldSoccer.com, BBC, Daily Mail and Huffington Post. He is also the Editor of SquareEyed.tv (http://www.squareeyed.tv/), covering the world of movies, TV and culture. Follow SquareEyed on Twitter @SquareEyed_tv and like us on Facebook! Follow Matt on Twitter @MattGault11
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