Mixed messages from McIlroy ahead of Masters

There’s no question that golf’s Big Three have dominated the headlines and conversation leading into this year’s Masters.

World No. 1 Jason Day has been very consistent in his opinions and messaging. He’s confident, playing extremely well, and publicly deflecting the opinion that he is the favourite when the ball goes in the ground Thursday morning.

Second-ranked Jordan Spieth has been searching for the form that won him his first championship of the season by eight strokes back in January at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Although Spieth may still be looking for the game he had last year, he’s been very open about not wanting to lose his title as reigning Masters champion. He has a strong desire to join Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, and Tiger Woods as the only players in history to defend their green jacket.

The world No. 3, however, has been a bit more of a mystery since ending his 2015 campaign with a win at the DP World Challenge. Rory McIlroy knows how important this week is. Yes, he won four times worldwide in 2015, but by McIlroy’s standards it was a lost season after losing the summer to a freak soccer accident that saw him miss the opportunity to defend his British Open and force his to rush back to competitive play for PGA Championship. Since McIlroy’s last major, when he won the 2014 PGA Championship in a dramatic Sunday duel, Spieth and Day have captured three of the four majors contested, and both were within one shot of making it all four.

McIlroy is playing for golf immortality this week, trying to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods as the only players in history to complete the modern day career grand slam. Many signs point to the suggestion that this week is of major importance to him, but unlike his fellow members of The Big Three, McIlroy has been a mixed bag of messaging and actions since arriving on the grounds.

During his Tuesday press conference he suggested that he needed a couple of wins to get back in the conversation as the best player in the world. McIlroy also announced this week that he would not compete in the annual Par-3 Contest, opting for rest over the annual Wednesday tradition. He stated that he was “motivated” by the play of both Day and Spieth, suggesting a tone of seriousness to his week at Augusta. If this wasn’t enough, McIlroy will play with a custom golf ball this week with the stamp “RM5” serving as a constant reminder of Rory McIlroy’s fifth major — the number he would have if he were to win this weekend. Heavy, focused, determined, right?

Maybe not. Rory has also talked this week about his need to have fun on the golf course, to enjoy it and relax to play his best golf. He’s spoken about the fear of being over-prepared and potentially wanting the win too much.

If that wasn’t mixed messaging enough, he will play Thursday’s opening round wearing a pair of golf shoes with the date April 13 stamped on them to acknowledge the final game in the historic career of basketball star Kobe Bryant, hardly a message to the field that he’s all business this week.

So which Rory is it? The player skipping annual traditions in the attempt to join golf’s Mount Rushmore, or the 27-year-old kid freewheeling it around a golf course that, by the numbers, sounds tailor-made for his explosive game? We will find out over the next four days. My guess is that it will land somewhere in the middle of fluid artist and focused world-class athlete. If I’m right, and Rory finds the recipe and balance, my bet is that Irish eyes will be smiling on the country’s first Masters champion.

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