AUGUSTA — There’s a sense, whether real or imagined, that this Masters could be a transformational moment in the star-dusted story of professional golf.
For the first time since 2009, when all his world was different, Tiger Woods has come to Augusta National with his body sound, his swing solid and a victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational less than two weeks ago tucked into his psyche.
And there is Rory McIlroy, the assumed heir apparent to Woods’ former throne, back at the site of his Sunday breakdown a year ago, the bounce back in his step, the twinkle back in his Northern Irish eyes.
There are others, to be sure. Phil Mickelson. Luke Donald. Lee Westwood. Hunter Mahan. Each has reason to think Augusta National will be reaching into a closet Sunday afternoon to pull out a green jacket for them.
“There are some incredible players in incredible form. It’s as good as it’s been in a few years,” Ian Poulter said.
But if this Masters doesn’t start and end with Woods and McIlroy, it circles around them in advance. The game’s next chapter might begin here.
For the first time since Mickelson cracked the major title code and, in the process, gained Woods’ respect, McIlroy has emerged as the presumed next great one. As grand as McIlroy’s collapse was a year ago — “it was such a blur,” he said of the 45 minutes in the middle of his final round that cratered his chances — his record-setting U.S. Open victory two months later was just as grand.
Woods’ story is almost numbingly familiar with the issues, the injuries and the relentless and sometimes halting climb back to the top of the game he once commanded. Here he is, seven years since his last Masters victory, seemingly clear-eyed and confident again. When he won at Bay Hill two weeks ago, the national TV ratings for the finish exceeded those of the North Carolina-Kansas NCAA game, a Nielsen-endorsed testament to his drawing power.
“He creates excitement that no one else in the game can,” McIlroy said of Woods. “A lot of people want to see him make history, and it looks like he’s back on track to maybe going and doing that.”
For all of their shared brilliance, Woods and McIlroy are separated by more than the 14-year difference in their ages.
Now they’re being cast as boxers on one golf magazine cover and proclaimed as the only story that matters in this Masters by another.
During a session with the media Tuesday, McIlroy was funny, insightful, self-deprecating, honest and unguardedly open. He seems almost incapable of being any other way.
When he watched a replay of his final-round 80 at the Masters last year, McIlroy said he saw a different person than the one he is. Head down. Shoulders bent like he’s trying to keep out the cold. Insular.
That’s not McIlroy. He looks around. He bounces when he walks. He invites fans in.
His biggest failure on that Sunday, when he stepped to the 10th tee with the lead and by the time he reached the 13th green was a one-car accident?
Trying to be someone he’s not, as a golfer and person.
“Like I didn’t want to let the outside world to get in instead of embracing the situation and saying, ‘I’ve got a four-shot lead at the Masters; let’s enjoy this.’ ” McIlroy said.