2023 Masters: McIlroy Looks to Shake Thursday Blues as the Rounds That Count Begin

AUGUSTA, Ga. — In the last five years, Rory McIlroy has spent 27 weeks ranked as the world’s best men’s golfer. He has earned nine PGA Tour victories, including at the Tour Championship and the Players Championship. He was on a Ryder Cup-winning team. In the final round of last year’s Masters Tournament, he carded an eight-under-par 64.But the last time he shot par or better in a Masters first round? April 5, 2018.2019: 73.2020: 75.2021: 76.2022: 73.At least the trend line is improving? It stands to reason that if McIlroy is to become the sixth modern player to achieve the career Grand Slam, he is very likely going to have to refigure out Thursdays at Augusta National Golf Club. (When he made his Masters debut in 2009, he shot a first-round par 72.)“It’s been tentative starts, not putting my foot on the gas early enough,” McIlroy said this week. “I’ve had a couple of bad nine holes that have sort of thrown me out of the tournament at times. So it’s sort of just like I’ve got all the ingredients to make the pie. It’s just putting all those ingredients in and setting the oven to the right temperature and letting it all sort of come to fruition. But I know that I’ve got everything there.”McIlroy is keenly aware that Augusta National, where he has lately played more than 80 holes of practice, is “a very difficult course to chase on.”“You start to fire at pins and short-siding yourself and you’re missing in the wrong spots, it’s hard to make up a lot of ground,” he said.Dottie Pepper, the CBS commentator and a two-time winner of women’s major championships, said she thought McIlroy had made some of the shifts necessary to contend, like switching putters and drivers. But Thursday, she said, may well reveal if it will be enough.“He has played himself out of the tournament year after year on Thursday, and all of a sudden, gets it in gear and it’s a gear too late,” she said. If he can sort out the first round, she predicted, “it could be a pretty spectacular movie come Saturday and Sunday.”McIlroy, who will play with Sam Burns and Tom Kim for the first two rounds, is scheduled to tee off at 1:48 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday.A new pathway into the Masters: the N.C.A.A. titleAugusta National announced the entry criteria for the 2024 Masters, and although the standards did not change much for professionals, America’s male college golfers have a new incentive to win the N.C.A.A.’s Division I individual title: It now comes with a Masters invitation.“That is a major amateur championship, and I thought it was time that we acknowledged it,” Fred S. Ridley, Augusta National’s chairman, said of the N.C.A.A. competition. Gordon Sargent, a sophomore from Vanderbilt University who is the reigning Division I champion, is in the 88-man field this week, having received an invitation from tournament organizers before the new policy was announced.“It really goes back to our roots, and that is that Bobby Jones was the greatest amateur of all time,” Ridley said, speaking broadly about the place of amateurs at Augusta National. “He believed in the importance of amateurs in the Masters. I had the personal experience of enjoying that on three different occasions, and I can tell you that it changed my life.”Past N.C.A.A. individual champions include Bryson DeChambeau, Luke Donald, Max Homa, Phil Mickelson, Curtis Strange and Tiger Woods.Sargent, who is from Birmingham, Ala., has reveled in the experience, even if he has been mistaken around Augusta National for, say, a participant in the youth Drive, Chip and Putt competition.“I’m walking around, and no one is with me,” Sargent said. “I don’t even know if I had my badge with me — I think I probably still had it in the car or something. I was like, ‘Can I have player dining?’ They’re like, I don’t know, player?”He eventually made it inside.“It was pretty funny,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Where are your parents? Like, did they send you by yourself?’ I was like, ‘No, they’re coming in. I can travel by myself sometimes.’”Ridley also said Wednesday that the winner of the N.C.A.A.’s individual women’s championship will be invited to play in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Stanford’s Rose Zhang, the reigning Division I champion, won that tournament over the weekend.Two past champions are ending their Augusta National careers.Ridley, ever diplomatic, did not identify Larry Mize as a reason Greg Norman was not invited to this year’s Masters. But it was Mize who hit a brilliant chip — from 140 feet away — at No. 11 in 1987, making Norman a Masters runner-up for a second straight year.Mize, 64, has played every Masters since, and this one will be his last. It will be also be the final Masters for Sandy Lyle, 65, who won in 1988.“Club head speed lowers down without you even trying sometimes, and then the course is getting longer and I’m getting shorter,” Lyle said. “Not a good combination. The young ones are so good these days that I can’t really compete against that.”Mize, the only Augusta native ever to win the Masters, has spent part of the week doling out counsel to newcomers.“Trust your talent, believe in it, and just let it go,” said Mize, who added, “You’ve got to respect this golf course, but you can’t fear it. You can’t play in fear out there, or it’s going to be a long week.”Mize, Lyle suggested, struggled to get through his remarks at Tuesday’s private dinner for past champions. He had figured Mize would be at ease. He was not.“He clammed up like a clam shell,” Lyle said. “He just stood up there and had a glass of water and another glass of water.” As it turns out, Lyle said, “He’s tough enough to win a Masters, but when it comes to that kind of emotional thing, we’ve all got feelings.”

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