Second place in Texas demonstrated the Ulsterman can be a contender at Augusta this weekend, writes Steve Elling.
Rory McIlroy picking the perfect time to regain his form
In an exacting, tactical sport with as many cruel caprices as golf, unintended consequences usually are not to a player's benefit.
Put a bit more lyrically, if not in actual player parlance, after a spring that he would just as soon forget, Rory McIlroy might soon give thanks that he tanked.
As the world this week tunes in for the Masters Tournament, eyeballs everywhere will be tracking the reinvigorated Tiger Woods, who over the past three months has not only won three times, butwrested the No 1 ranking away from McIlroy, who struggled with his both game and the demands of the top position.
To that end, McIlroy says a quiet amen - and he's in no way referring to the famous trio of holes in the corner of the Augusta National layout, either. No onus, big bonus.
"Nice," McIlroy said, laughing. "I didn't think I could go into a Masters under the radar. In a way, it's not a bad thing."
Especially not after last weekend. McIlroy might have Woods right where he wants him.
After a wretched start to the 2013 season, which included a missed cut, a first-round knockout in match play and a regrettable withdrawal after a career-worst day in Florida, McIlroy has exhumed his game at just the right time - when few were watching.
After making one cut in a full-field event all season, McIlroy added last week's Texas Open at the last minute at the behest of his caddie, who must have been reading the newspapers, if not his dwindling bank statement.
Everybody from Belfast to Bay Hill believed that McIlroy needed more live-fire tournament experience before heading to Augusta, and lo and behold, he played better than he had in four months to finish second.
History has shown that being a runner-up in San Antonio can be bad for a combatant's long-term prognosis - remember the Alamo - but McIlroy has dug in his spurs are exactly the right time, regardless of the fact that Woods is again the dizzying favorite to win a fifth title at Augusta.
"I didn't quite get the win," McIlroy said as he headed to Augusta, "but everything that I wanted to accomplish this week, I accomplished."
That said, the 23-year-old Ulsterman has still logged a mere 16 tournament rounds as he heads to the season's first major. But after a spring spent mostly fishing balls out of palm trees and water hazards, his confidence, control and poise have largely been restored. It wasn't just the scoreboard numbers in Texas that were welcome news, either.
He finished two strokes behind Martin Laird, who shot 63 in the final round to blow past everybody, but McIlroy tied for the lead in greens found in regulation. After an awful start, McIlroy at last resembles the rising star who was named player of the year on both major tours in 2012.
So, if the scrutiny is centered on Woods, who has not won a Masters title since 2005 and finished a career-worst 40th at Augusta last year, that can only be a positive development for McIlroy, who has not exactly thrived in the tournament's spotlight in the past. His last two trips to the world's most elite venue have been, even in the most charitable terms, complete cave-ins.
Two years ago, he shot 80 in the final round to blow a four-stroke, 54-hole lead, though he impressed fans with his self-deprecating humour. After last year, it's become something of a weekend routine.
Last spring, McIlroy was one stroke off the lead heading into the weekend, and played so poorly in the third round alongside Sergio Garcia that they walked off the 12th green with arms slung over the other's shoulder, partners in commiserating misery.
McIlroy shot 77-76 and skidded to joint 40th with Woods. McIlroy's 9-over weekend was the worst of anyone finishing in the top 55.
After posting two scores in the 60s in San Antonio - matching the total from his previous five 2013 starts combined - McIlroy might have Woods right where he wants him. After all, McIlroy has repeatedly has endured flat spots over the years, including a run of four missed cuts in five starts last summer.
Who else has the tools to consistently challenge Woods, a player McIlroy beat four times last year, the most victories ever recorded against Woods by one player in a single season?
"He's such a good player, and in my opinion, has the best game on tour," Italy's Matteo Manassero said. "Any tour."
McIlroy hopes to reinforce that sentiment. If it doesn't happen until late Sunday night, after everybody stops watching Woods, even better.