World No. 1 Rory McIlroy will make his 2015 American debut this weekend at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida at the PGA National Resort. The tournament is the first of a Florida swing for the tour and a good barometer leading up to the Masters.
The Honda Classic will have a strong field, featuring notables including Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed and Martin Kaymer. McIlroy’s grouping for the tournament is a who’s who of long-drivers, featuring No. 1 in 2015 driving distance Dustin Johnson (315.5) and No. 2 Brooks Koepka (313.3 yards). McIlroy is no slouch off the tee however, averaging 310.5 yards in 2014, but his group will clearly be a competitive one. Koepka has been playing great golf, winning the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Johnson has also been playing well in his return to the game, finishing second last week at the Northern Trust Open. If McIlroy’s game stands up to or overshadows his partners', it will be a sign of what to expect this season.
2014 was a banner year for McIlroy. The 25-year-old won two majors (the PGA Championship and the British Open) and Player of the Year. The top golfer is a legitimate superstar and has entered the rarefied air where only majors truly matter.
“I want people in 30-40-50 years time to look back on me in a way that they look back on Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player,” McIlroy told the Golf Channel.
“I want to be remembered for what I’ve done in the game and my achievements, that’s what motivates me.”
McIlroy has the opportunity to add to his legacy soon. The Masters, which being April 9, are the last major he hasn’t won. If he can complete the career grand slam at 25, then he will certainly be in the conversation with the likes of Tiger Woods, Nicklaus, and Palmer. Only Woods, Nicklaus, Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen have completed the career grand slam. That's some heavy company. McIlroy is the favorite to win the Masters at 8/11, according to bovada.lv.
McIlroy’s best chance to win the Masters came in 2011. He was playing extremely well and entered Sunday with a four-stroke lead but collapsed with a final-round 80. Last year he finished eighth.
The Honda Classic is a natural starting point for McIlroy’s American season. He won the tournament in 2012, pushing his official world golf ranking at the time to No. 1,the youngest golfer ever to achieve the honor. Last year he lost in an exciting four-man playoff to Russell Henley. The course is also near his McIlroy’s Florida home, an added convenience.
ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi reported that McIlroy looked sharp in the Honda Classic Pro-Am and had missed just one fairway and one green. That must be a good sign heading into the tournament. Seven of 10 experts surveyed by PGATour.com picked McIlroy to win.
McIlroy often seems so in form that it may feel like it's him against the entire field, much like the legends whose legacies he wants to match. He could be the most formidable challenger when the Masters begins.
"I feel like I've got a nice scheduling going into Augusta," McIlroy said Wednesday. "I'm not playing too much, but I'm playing just enough that I should be as sharp as possible going in there.
"I haven't thought about [the Masters]. What I really thought about over the past couple of weeks is getting ready for these events coming up, which is going to be here, Doral and Bay Hill, and trying to play as well as I possibly can in those. So that gives me a little confidence going into a little break to prepare as well as I can for Augusta."