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Published: Sunday, 4/10/2011

Now is the time for McIlroy to shine at Masters

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Before he made the turn and his putter again got in his way, Sergio Garcia got to 7-under par on Saturday and jumped well up the Masters leaderboard, reminding us for a brief spell that, yes, there still is a Sergio Garcia.

And that brings us to Rory McIlroy.

He is 21 years old, and you would figure that he has all the time in the world to win his first major championship and become the next big thing in pro golf.

But, then, we remember Sergio. He was still a teenager in 1999 when he pushed Tiger Woods to the finish at the PGA Championship, and we were poised to enjoy a rivalry for the ages. He would be Nelson to Hogan or Nicklaus to Palmer or Watson to Nicklaus, or some such thing.

It never happened and now Garcia, incredibly, is 31 and wandering in the wilderness, his confidence always one shot, one roll of a putt from being pricked, a needle into a balloon. He can still play the game, don't get us wrong, but once he was projected to win multiple majors and, now, if the over-under is one, the temptation would be to take the under.

So maybe it would be a good idea for McIlroy to take full advantage of the opportunity presented him in Sunday's final round of the Masters.

He is four shots clear of the field and, maybe, as he walks to the tee he'll look up at the big board and note the name Adam Scott, who begins Sunday as part of the four-way tie for second.

The Aussie with the movie star looks and the private jet and the chalet in Switzerland won the Players Championship in 2004 and the Tour Championship two years later and that jet was flying through a sky with no horizon, no limit. But injuries and illness and personal issues derailed him and, like Garcia, it never really happened. Scott too, is in his 30s now.

So maybe McIlroy should win Sunday.

Maybe there is no such thing as a sure thing.

But, man, does he ever look like one.

He's hip, cool, and has a hitch to his get-along that's a little bit cocky, a little bit cruise control. His swing is in a groove; his game seems stress-free. He has the patience of a grizzled veteran. He knows pars are OK in moderation and that the great ones pick their spots to grab the moment.

The moment on Saturday came at No. 17. After 12 holes, McIlroy was 1-over for the day and in a tie for the lead before reaching the two par-5s on the back, Nos. 13 and 15, in two and two-putting for birdies. But No. 17 was the dagger. He was 30-plus feet from the cup on the back of the green and the double break went right and then left, and he drained it dead center.

"It was tracking all the way; it was a bonus," he said. "I'd been waiting all day for one to fall like that. The last six holes were nice."

The next 18 could alter the sport. Face it. Saturday began with many wondering if Tiger Woods, who trailed by just three, could apply a blow torch to the kiddies at the top of the scoreboard. He did not. He followed a 66 with a 74. Now, we wonder if a torch is about to be passed.

It was Woods who put a new face on the game with his lap-the-field win here in 1997. Like McIlroy today, Tiger was 21.

"I'd watched the previous year when Nick [Faldo] won, but that's when Tiger sort of grabbed all our imaginations, and it was a huge moment in the game of golf," McIlroy said.

Now it is his turn for his moment.

It would be the first big rodeo for the current crop of young guns, and it would pretty much turn notion into fact that American golf, at least on the major stage, is pretty anemic these days. If Graeme McDowell (McIlroy's countryman from Northern Ireland), Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa and Martin Kaymer of Germany didn't make the point a year ago, Rory could put an exclamation point on it Sunday.

This is the 75th Masters and never before have the top five players heading into the final round not included an American. The U.S. standard-bearer after 54 holes is Bo Van Pelt, and he is in eighth place.

"It's a great position to be in," McIlroy said of his margin, "but I'm not getting ahead of myself. I have to go out there tomorrow and not take anything for granted and play as hard as I played the last three days.
"I can only control what I do and after three rounds I've controlled what I can do pretty well."

All that's left to do is win. After all, why wait?

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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