McIlroy has it all except the thing he wants most

Sport Science: The Rory Challenge (3:06)

Rory McIlroy puts his skills to the test with three specially designed challenges at the "Sport Science" lab. (3:06)

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Rory McIlroy has just about everything a young man could want -- fame, fortune, shredded pecs and the unmitigated affection of millions of fans who wish they had one of the above.

McIlroy also has the full respect of the American icon he once idolized, Tiger Woods. The little dreamer from Holywood, Northern Ireland, had posters of Woods on his bedroom wall.

"Now, I obviously have a very different relationship with him," McIlroy said Tuesday.

You think? How many of us grow up to become corporate BFFs with our heroes? To supplant them? To feel almost sorry for them? To make them seem so much smaller than they looked when we gazed up at them from the pillow with a child's awe?

So this is good for McIlroy, this little house of personal horrors that stages the most prestigious tournament in the world. Something has to humble a 25-year-old golfer with four major championships already tucked in his hip pocket, and that something is Augusta National, the one ballpark that makes the young slugger in pursuit of a career Grand Slam look like something he is most definitely not.


McIlroy's best finish in six Masters appearances was last year's tie for eighth, which was no more legitimate (he shot a pressure-free 69 on Sunday) than your average, everyday Ponzi scheme. McIlroy has managed a round of 77 or worse in each of his past five Masters. In 2011, he famously Greg Norman-ed his 4-shot lead on Sunday, shot 80 and appeared on the verge of tears. His absurd hook off the 10th tee left him so close to one of the cabins it appeared he was trimming its bushes.

That's what McIlroy faces now, his last frontier, as he tries to join Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen as the only men to win all four professional majors. McIlroy doesn't worry about Woods anymore, and he doesn't fret over the Jordan Spieths and Rickie Fowlers, and he doesn't fear the jailhouse rough of the U.S. Open, or the quirky bounces of the Open Championship, or the oppressive, late-summer heat of the PGA Championship.

But Augusta National is very much in his head.

"I think the first tee shot is probably the only first tee shot of a tournament these days that I still get nervous at," McIlroy conceded. "The one that you get butterflies and your heart races a little bit faster than it does usually."

The popular pre-tournament narrative suggests McIlroy shouldn't be so jittery this time around, and it has nothing to do with the fact he won the last two majors of 2014. The return of Tiger, toothless as he might be, is supposed to take some pressure off McIlroy and his Grand Slam bid ("It is such a big story," the McIlroy said of Woods), and Tiger tried to do his bud another solid by describing his own mission accomplished in 2000 at a most appropriate venue, St. Andrews, the storied cradle of golf.

"And for Rory," Woods said, "you couldn't ask for the other better place to do it, which is here at Augusta. It doesn't get much better than that ... I'm sure he'll have many green jackets in his closet before it's all said and done."

We'll see about that. For all of his long-ball muscle, and for all of the times he's held 9-irons and wedges on approach shots out of Tiger's dominant past, McIlroy has never figured out Augusta National's par-5s. This course was absolutely built for his game, and yet he turns eagles and birdies into bogeys and doubles for reasons that are less physical, more psychological.

"It's such an intimidating place the first time that you get here," McIlroy said. "And I felt like I may have shown it a little bit too much respect at times."

Maybe he'll get past it this week, and maybe he won't. Maybe McIlroy is in the early hours of what will be a futile career-long pursuit; Norman and Lee Trevino are among those who could tell him a thing or two about that.

Either way, the Woods comeback won't likely provide him cover for most of the tournament. Tiger will be the story Thursday, but if he goes out and chips again like a weekend warrior and shoots 78, the spotlight will find the world's current No. 1 in a snap. In fact, Masters officials might've protected themselves against the possibility of that opening 78 by Tiger-proofing the Friday afternoon TV window, sending Woods out in the morning of the second round while leaving more likely contenders McIlroy and Phil Mickelson to take their whacks later in the day.

And yes, McIlroy is most worthy of that spotlight.

"I played with him when he was 19 years old in Dubai," former Masters champ Mark O'Meara said from behind the Augusta National clubhouse. "I was paired with him those first two days. That was his first tournament that he'd won on the European tour and I called it then. I said, 'This kid at 19 has got as much talent, more talent, at 19 than Tiger had.'"

Asked to compare a 25-year-old McIlroy to a 25-year-old Woods, O'Meara said, "I think Rory's close."

How close? The 79-year-old South African, Player, called Woods "the most talented man to ever play golf." But the living legend who completed his Grand Slam at the 1965 U.S. Open and who has more major victories (nine) than any other non-American golfer didn't discount McIlroy's chances of someday pushing his own major count into double figures and beyond.

"Oh sure. I expect Rory to win more than nine majors," Player said. "I expect him to do it. He's playing with a private jet, he's playing with a million-dollar first prize, he doesn't have to travel like I did from South Africa to here, 40 hours ... Rory has that thing called 'It.' He's got manners, he's got great parents, he works hard, he's very generous with the public, which you have to be.

"And he can play. He's got a super golf swing, and I just hope he keeps that and doesn't start making the mistake that Tiger made. If Tiger Woods, after he won the U.S. Open by 15 shots, never had a lesson from that day onwards, he would've won 22 major championships minimum ... So Rory's got to think carefully and learn from Tiger's mistake. To jump and change coaches and get this idea, that idea, this idea and get paralysis by analysis is fatal."

As much as Woods has chased Nicklaus' record of 18 big ones, McIlroy maintained that he's not chasing Woods' 14.

"I don't have a target," he said. Given that McIlroy's childhood worship of Woods mirrored Tiger's childhood worship of Jack, and given that McIlroy parlayed that worship into Nike's new crib-to-tee-box commercial, it was a hard claim to buy. The New York Times Magazine quoted McIlroy's uncle as saying 9-year-old Rory wrote Woods a letter of warning that went something like this: "I'm coming to get you. This is the beginning. Watch this space."

The grown-up McIlroy was a bit more candid at Valhalla in August, when the high of his latest conquest inspired him to compare his career to those of older legends and to declare he wanted to go down as the greatest European player of them all. The kid is sure on his way, and then some. He's got the talent, he's got the nine-figure Nike contract and, oh yeah, he's even got Niall Horan of One Direction on his bag for Wednesday's Par 3 Contest.

What a life. Imagine how good that life will be when the dreamer from Holywood, Northern Ireland, gets his Hollywood, California, ending and finally wins the Masters.