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Lateral Hazard: Rory McIlroy looking better, but don't expect him to contend at Masters

Brian Murphy
Yahoo Sports

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Rory McIlroy had reason to be pleased with his performance at the Texas Open. (AP)

We open Masters week by offering a huge congratulations to Rory McIlroy, winner of the Valero Texas Open, non-Martin Laird division.

If changing his schedule to change his mojo was Rory's goal after an awful start to 2013, consider McIlroy's silver medal in San Antonio a qualified success.

"Success," because it's the first time in a half-dozen starts this year he's even come close enough to the winner's circle to take a picture of it with his smart phone.

And "qualified," because he still hasn't won since switching to the Nike clubs for big money and news conference fireworks.

I know, Laird blistered the field with his Sunday 63, racing from five shots back, and there was nothing McIlroy could do to stop him. I know Laird, the Scotsman who was tied for seventh to start Sunday, used only 22 putts to record his second PGA Tour win, crazy good, unbeatable golf.

But you think Tiger Woods would stand idly by and let someone else blow past him with a Sunday 63? I think not. I submit that if Tiger were playing the Texas Open, Tiger's renewed Aura of Invincibility would have forced Laird to chunk a couple of chips, leave a few putts short, hit some indifferent bunker shots and shoot something around a 71.

[Watch: Rory comes up just short at Texas Open]

Such is Rory's lot. He added the Texas Open to his schedule to find something in the dirt, and sort of did. Except, he didn't win. Now, he will drive down Magnolia Lane this week and into the players' parking lot, where one imagines the first thing he'll see will be Tiger's luxury sedan in Spot 1A. It'll be easy to notice. It'll be the car with gold rims, fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror and the words "I'M BACK, BABY" painted on the back window, like a newlywed couple's script announcing nuptials.

I'm joshing, of course. But only partially. The conventional wisdom is that Rory will be energized by his runner-up finish in Texas, that he finally got some Sunday adrenaline going and felt the rush of competition and will be a factor at the Masters.

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McIlroy finished second to Martin Laird at the Texas Open in San Antonio. (Getty Images)

And, sure, McIlroy played his best golf of 2013. A Sunday 66, combined with a 72-67-71 start means he has strung together seven consecutive rounds at par or better.

He says he's "really pleased" with his game, and called it a "great week." He sent out a tweet Sunday night that he thought 66 would be "enough," but called Laird's 63 "special."

"No complaints and Augusta bound!" he tweeted.

He remains unfailingly polite, and uses exclamation points like any new millennium tweeter. And he's made progress since walking off the course at the Honda Classic a month ago – so much progress that he hasn't walked off any courses since.

But even with all those positives, don't look for McIlroy to be a factor at Augusta National, a place where he should, by all rights, start collecting green jackets one day.

He's not ready yet, this fragile, dented 2013 Rory, for the cauldron of a weekend in the cathedral of pines. He's not ready for a bloodthirsty Tiger. He's not ready for swing after swing of pressure-packed golf with those Nike irons he still doesn't fully know or trust on the highest level.

[Related: Tiger Woods still thinks he can win 20 majors]

One runner-up at a Texas Open does not a Masters contender make.

Rory remains a golfer who is healing from significant wounds to his game and psyche from the first three months of this season. It's important and good that he played well at Texas, and he deserves full credit for squeezing in the week to accelerate the process.

But Augusta National comes too soon for Rory's 2013 game. Just ask Martin Laird, who was having an awful 2013 and now has something this year that Rory does not – a win.

It'll stay that way by Sunday night in Butler Cabin.

SCORECARD OF THE WEEK

70-67-67-69 – 15-under 273, Inbee Park, winner, LPGA Kraft Nabisco Championship, Mission Hills CC, Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Sometimes, you can get so caught up in Rory and Tiger, you forget there are other fine practitioners of the game's art. Inbee Park would be one of those practitioners.

At age 24, the South Korean native, turned-Las Vegas high schooler, turned-UNLV student, turned-Southern California resident now has two major championships and five career wins – not to mention four wins in her past 16 starts, a Tiger-esque run after her comfortable four-shot win at the LPGA's first major of the year earned her a dive into "Poppie's Pond."

[Related: Watch Greg Chalmers make hole-in-one at Texas Open]

A year ago, the women's game was all Yani Tseng. But Tseng had trouble handling the top spot, and her game has gone sideways. Now, the top player in the game is American Stacy Lewis, and she's got herself a rival in Park, a stoic who seems to have the even temperament to handle the game and its attendant, crushing pressures.

Park closed out her win with the reaction of a young woman finishing up a bucket of balls on the range. No histrionics, no tears; just a player who has major game, and major wins, to boot.

BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK

"I'll tell you, his confidence has to be coming back, big time. I'll bet Tiger is enjoying this, too. His buddy." – Johnny Miller, NBC, assessing Rory's final-round 66.

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Tiger Woods, right, has enjoyed a competitive rivalry with McIlroy. (AP)

Miller has, along with Nick Faldo, been one of the primary critics of McIlroy's switch to Nike this year, frankly saying all year that Rory might need at least a year to adjust.

So what do we make of him acknowledging a surge of confidence for the young Ulsterman?

Mostly, I make of it that he said Tiger is "enjoying" Rory's good play. That's notable for a couple of reasons.

One, it appears Tiger is a different competitor at age 37 than he was at age 27. His friendly rivalry with McIlroy continues to gain traction as legitimate. Tiger is a different dude now. Two, what's also true is: Any positive momentum from Rory will serve to only sharpen Tiger's focus, make him that much more lasered for a fifth green jacket.

[Also: Bubba Watson hopes Tiger Woods gets sick]

In that sense, Miller was spot on. Tiger, playing a practice round Sunday at Augusta National, no doubt saw that Rory is playing better, and that can only fire The Big Cat up.

MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK

Seeing Park win her second major reminds you only how invisible Michelle Wie – only one year younger than Park – has been on the international scene.

As we've noted before in this column, Wie's desire and decision to become a full-time student and graduate from Stanford with a communications degree is hardly fodder for criticism. In many ways, it's a reminder that the full human experience is better than the narrow human experience.

But still, couldn't this prodigiously talented young woman mix in a few more wins than her career total of two, and rank higher in the world than 86th?

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Michelle Wie has two career victories on the LPGA Tour. (AP)

Even Annika Sorenstam, about as mild-mannered a star the game has ever seen, told Golf Magazine in a Q-and-A that "the talent we all thought would be there [in Wie] is not there." She added that Wie "jumped in too deep" by playing men's events as a teenager, and we're all seeing the negative effects.

There's not a soul in the golf world who would argue with what Sorenstam said, but predictably, in today's uber-sensitive world, Annika issued an apology to Wie last week. Just, because, you know, that's what people do these days.

In fact, I'm sorry to all you readers. For what, I'm not sure. But I am sorry.

Meanwhile, there was Wie at the LPGA Kraft Nabisco, entering the event with precious little momentum. In five LPGA starts this year, Wie had three missed cuts, a tie for 45th and a 45th. She'd earned a little more than $6,000 this year. And then, more uninspired golf: 72-70-73-73 and a tie for 41st at Rancho Mirage.

Maybe most frustrating is Wie's continued putting woes. Always a poor putter, she's taken to desperate measures.

[Also: European Tour golfer hits shot — without any pants]

If you watched the Kraft Nabisco, you saw that Wie has unveiled a new putting stance. She addresses the ball and then bends at the waist to a 90-degree angle, as if she's lost a contact lens and is scouring the bentgrass for it, or as if she threw out her back and is dire need of a on-green chiropractor, stat.

Even Ian Poulter tweeted that he couldn't bear to watch Wie's putting stance, calling for her instructor to have his or head "tested."

On Saturday, using that Mr. Magoo-just-lost-a-coin stance, The Big Wiesy had a 12-inch putt for bogey on the 11th hole. She ran it past the hole. Yikes.

So let's go back out to that green at Rancho Mirage, remind Wie that none of the great golfers in history have ever assumed such a putting stance, stand her up a little bit and … give that young woman a mulligan!

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Cue the tinkling piano and strumming guitar, golf fans. No, you have not been put on hold after phoning a mortuary. You are hearing the CBS theme for the Masters, and you will love every note of it.

I'd even say "Hello, friends" to each of you, but I don't want my pal Jim Nantz to sue me for breach of intellectual property.

You will be deluged with delicious Masters hype on this web site all week, so let me just get out of your way and leave you with my five most likely winners, in ascending order: 5. Brandt Snedeker; 4. Matt Kuchar; 3. Phil Mickelson; 2. Justin Rose and …No. 1 …

What, like you've got to ask? He's back, baby.

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