Four-Ball: After Bay Hill near-miss, McIlroy trending in right direction
Golf fans know we're inside two weeks until the Masters, but what can we surmise about the upcoming first men's major of 2017?
And how much a part of those festivities will Rory McIlroy be a part of at Augusta?
Our panel of experts examine those issues, as well as the upcoming WGC-Match Play, in this week's edition of Monday Four-Ball.
1. We are two weeks away from the Masters. What's the one thing you know for sure (or don't know) heading into Augusta?
ESPN SportsCenter anchor Matt Barrie: The one thing I know two weeks out from Augusta is that Rory McIlroy will be in the top 5 headed into Sunday. He just seems right. He seems healthy. He seems confident. I can envision a leaderboard heading in Sunday with Jordan Speith, McIlroy and Dustin Johnson. Please Masters gods, make that a reality.
ESPN SportsCenter anchor Jonathan Coachman: The one thing I know for sure is that the top golfers are all playing really well, maybe with the exception of Jason Day. But we know that he can turn it on any time. Dustin Johnson has already won this season. Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, too. And Rory McIlroy finds himself coming off the DL and performing at a high level. So the thing I know is that it will take a special performance to win at Augusta this year.
ESPN.com senior golf analyst Michael Collins: I am absolutely positive that Jordan Spieth will be in the mix come Sunday at the Masters. You don't play that course the way he's played it the past three years by accident. It's not a fluke. No matter what Spieth does (barring injury) before the magical week of Augusta, I know he'll have a chance on Sunday at the Masters.
ESPN.com senior golf writer Bob Harig: One thing is for sure: You can't predict anything with certainty going into the Masters. Winning in Florida is not necessarily a good barometer for success. Nor is winning in general. Sometimes being under the radar helps. It's wide open.
ESPN.com senior golf writer Jason Sobel: It feels like we say this every year, but this could be an epic Masters. We've got most of the world's best players peaking at the right time. A Sunday afternoon leaderboard featuring Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson could offer some premium entertainment.
2. How would you describe the state of Rory McIlroy's game with the Masters just around the corner?
Barrie: Rory McIlroy's game is in a great spot. His driver is long and accurate, and he seems to be in attack mode again. For me, that is the biggest indicator. When he's playing aggressive and confident, the field is in trouble. His game is good and healthy.
Coachman: When Rory is even a little off like Sunday, he is still able to contend and almost win. When he has everything on go there is no player that can stay with him. But it's a fine line for McIlroy, who is a finely tuned golf machine. We have seen before at Augusta that he can lap the field, but one bad shot can derail him. If he gets rid of that, McIlroy could be the man to beat.
Collins: Rounding into form and almost ready. This is the second week he's had a chance to win in only his second start in the calendar year on the PGA Tour. McIlroy still has that one bad round that needs to go from a 74 to a 71, but that will come with playing more, which is what he's doing. He'll be ready to win this year at the Masters.
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Harig: Having played just two tournaments since returning from a rib injury, it is much farther along than could be expected. He's contended in both events, which is impressive given the long layoff. Perhaps if he had been playing more, that approach to the 18th green Sunday after a big drive would have given him a better birdie opportunity at Bay Hill. But all things considered, McIlroy has to be pleased.
Sobel: He's trending in the right direction. There's definitely something to be said for not peaking too early, and coming off that rib injury, he is moving toward even better play coming up in these next few weeks.
3. With this week's WGC-Match Play in Texas, should we have more, less or just one match-play event on the PGA Tour each season?
Barrie: More. Match play makes golf more of a competition rather than a playing by yourself against the field in a weekly exercise. Sprinkling in more, "you vs. me for last man standing" would add some juice.
Coachman: I wouldn't mind having another one in addition to this one. But I love this format. Maybe even having a stroke-play/match-play combo would work for me. The players seem to really get into match play and I think their egos would like to have more of this as well. Person vs. person. Head to head. They love it.
Collins: One is enough. Since there'd be no way to have a match-play event with 120-man field (unless you wanted guys taking two weeks off afterward) I'm OK with the one match-play event. We do get team match play every year as it stands, with the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup taking turns at the end of each season. That's better drama anyway.
Harig: Another match-play event would be great if it is a different format, perhaps with a stroke-play component that allows a full field to compete over 36 holes to narrow the field to 16 players.
Sobel: I love match play. I love playing it with buddies. I love the competitive nature of it. But when it comes to the world's best players, once a year (or twice, if we include Ryder/Presidents Cup) is enough. More of a good thing doesn't make it a better thing.
4. Who is the best match-play golfer in the world today?
Barrie: This seems like a Rory column, but give me McIlroy as the best match-play golfer in the world. His overall record is 28-12-2, and when he's playing well, he can make quick work of his opponent. When healthy, Jason Day can lay claim. But for me, Rory is on top.
Coachman: To me, it's Patrick Reed because he just believes he is better than anyone else. It pumps him up, and honestly I feel that he likes rubbing people the wrong way when he goes head-to-head. When Reed gets on a roll, he can play downhill but also can make a 15 foot putt to save par and halve a hole. Reed will be a top player at this event every year. I would love to see Reed vs. Spieth on Sunday.
Collins: It's a toss-up between Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy. If they played against each other 10 times, each getting five "home" games, they'd go 5-5. What I love is the fact that they're the only players who would want to go head-to-head against the other.
Harig: There's not enough of it to give a definitive answer, but I like Rory McIlroy a lot in match play. He's got plenty of experience at it through amateur golf and in playing in the Ryder Cup. He seems to relish the challenge. And his strength off the tee can be such an advantage.
Sobel: There's obviously a limited sample size from which to analyze, but I'll take Rory McIlroy. This format often brings out the best in his game -- and I think it will again this week, too.