By Andrew Both
(Reuters) - Whether or not Rory McIlroy completes the career grand slam at the U.S. Masters next Sunday, he will be impervious to the pressure of being the favorite, according to two former players who will call the action from Augusta National.
After four mediocre tournaments, McIlroy recaptured his old brilliance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago.
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He stormed to victory with five birdies in the final six holes as his previously cold putter caught fire and matched the rest of his game.
A lesson with Brad Faxon, probably the best putter on tour for most of his career, helped McIlroy to stop obsessing with mechanics, focusing on remaining loose and making a good stroke.
That performance helped catapult McIlroy to outright favorite with at least one bookmaker.
“Rory won’t read too much into being the favorite this year (and) nor should we,” former PGA Tour winner Frank Nobilo, who will work at the Masters for CBS and Golf Channel, told Reuters.
“It (being favorite) won’t create any more pressure than his own personal quest to win the Rory slam.”
Ian Baker-Finch, who will call the action at the 17th hole for CBS, thinks McIlroy remains the best player in the world when he is on his game.
In other words, McIlroy’s best is better than anyone else’s, but that does not guarantee anything in one of the most fickle of all games.
"When he putts well and when he’s confident, he’s the best,” 1991 British Open champion Baker-Finch said.
"He’s won four majors and when he wins he can win by 10 shots. There is a lot of pressure, going for grand slam, one of the favorites, but I still believe he’s the man to beat.”
McIlroy knows what he is capable of when his putter co-operates.
Arguably the best driver in the game, he smashes the ball prodigious distances, combined with a reasonable degree of accuracy.
“I kept telling everyone, even when I was missing cuts and finishing 60th, it wasn't that far away," the 28-year-old Northern Irishman said after winning at Bay Hill.
“I’ve always believed in myself and I know that being 100 percent healthy is good enough to not just win on the PGA Tour but win a lot.
“So I never lost belief. I know that I've got a gift for this game and I know that if I put the time in I can make a lot of it.”
With a high ball-flight that allows him to play more aggressively than most with his iron shots, which land feathery soft on the greens, McIlroy plays a game his peers can only dream about.
It is so perfectly suited to Augusta National that he can hardly help playing well - as proven by four consecutive top-10 finishes in the past four years - but you have to make medium-distance putts to win majors.
Which is where Faxon may have helped solved the missing piece of the puzzle.
"(He) freed up my head more than my stroke,” McIlroy said.
"I was complicating things a bit and thinking a little bit too much about it and maybe a little bogged down by technical or mechanical thoughts.
"The objective is to get that ball in the hole and that's it. I think I lost sight of that a little bit.”
Nobilo noted that McIlroy’s Bay Hill victory was a timely reminder of his special talent.
“The greens were the quickest they have putted all season and the course played firm and fast; not normally his forte. So it showed that he is adding to his game despite the apparent lack of form going in,” Nobilo said.
“He hasn’t lost that extra gear that sets him apart and makes him dangerous when he is close to the lead on Sundays."
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, editing by Ed Osmond)