McIlroy has unfinished business at the Masters 

click to enlarge Rory McIlroy - GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
  • Getty Images file photo
  • Rory McIlroy

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- This is where it begins, on the fairways and under the pines. This is where the golfing year starts. It’s all been a warmup until now, until the first weekend of April, until the Masters.

Jack Nicklaus defined his year by the majors, and if that idea were good enough for Jack, still the greatest until proven differently, it’s good enough for the rest of us. And the rest of the pros.

The Road Ends Here is the copyrighted slogan for the NCAA’s Final Four, which in fact ended Monday night in New Orleans with Kentucky sweeping to victory.

College basketball has moved off stage. Golf moves in and moves on with one of its most attractive shows, the sweet-scented tournament were history lives and memories persist.

Then in two months it’s on to San Francisco, to the U.S. Open at Olympic Club, a course so different from Augusta, but no less challenging. In July it’s the British Open, the Open Championship, the oldest of them all, at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s, and finally the PGA Championship, at Kiawah Island in South Carolina.

A movable feast of competition, beginning here in the red clay country near the Savannah River, here where a year ago Rory McIlroy fell apart on the final day, Tiger Woods stumbled in the fourth round and Charl Schwartzel became the first to birdie the last four holes, which naturally made him champion.

Tiger, the man who moves every needle. Rory, the man who as a kid was moved by Tiger Woods. Maybe for a while, a rivalry, a confrontation transcending golf. Maybe only a tease.

The game is different. A golfer plays the course not the opposition. He can’t make diving interceptions. He can’t vocally harass an opponent. He has no control over what another player does.

So it’s really not Tiger against Rory. Or Phil Mickelson against Schwartzel. Or Hunter Mahan against Luke Donald. It’s one against all and all against one.

McIlroy, 22, did win last year’s U.S. Open, by a million strokes or so at Congressional. Yet his return here brings up a less joyful reminder, an 80 in the last round when he fell from the lead.

“Obviously,” McIlroy conceded Tuesday about 2011, “there’s memories that you probably don’t want.”

But memories he can handle. “It’s fine,” said McIlroy. “I got that all out of the way. I learned a lot. I think one of the things I learned was that as a person and a golfer I wasn’t ready to win the Masters, wasn’t ready to win a major. I needed to think about what I needed to improve mentally and in different aspects of my game to get better. I felt like I did that.”

Indeed. After some encouragement from Jack Nicklaus, who gave him advice on how to putt and how not to take chances, McIlroy, the Northern Irishman, was a record 16-under par in the U.S. Open.

“Winning the U.S. Open was something very important to me,” McIlroy said. “It sort of proved to me more than anything else I was able to win at the very highest level in this sport.”

Now he needs to prove he can win the Masters.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. Email him at typoes@aol.com.

Johnson forced to withdraw

Dustin Johnson will miss the Masters because of a back injury, he tweeted Tuesday. “First I have to apologize to the fans and sponsors. With heartfelt regret, I won’t be playing in the Masters due to a tweaked back,” Johnson tweeted. Ranked 12th in the world, Johnson has played in the Masters three times.  — Reuters

The Masters

WHEN: Thursday-Sunday
WHERE: Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga
TV: Thursday and Friday, noon-4:30. (ESPN); Saturday, 12:30-4 p.m. (CBS), and Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (CBS)

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