- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 5, 2017

AUGUSTA, Ga. | Rory McIlroy has turned Augusta into a second home over the last few weeks, twice flying in for marathon practice rounds that allowed him to play 99 holes in his preparation for the Masters.

Apparently that wasn’t enough.

With violent storms forecast, McIlroy got up early Wednesday to squeeze in another nine holes.

He played them as though he were seeing Augusta National for the first time. On the par-3 16th, after hitting his tee shot to 4 feet, McIlroy hit putts to all four corners of the green from every angle. On the 17th, he stayed in the bunker left of the green hitting shot after shot to tees stuck in the green where the holes will be cut.

“The more I can just play the golf course and almost make it seem like second nature to me, where to hit the balls on the greens and where to start putts and know where the pin positions are … the more that can become second nature, the better,” McIlroy said.

And the sooner he can be fitted for a green jacket, the better.

McIlroy, 27, lacks only a Masters title to join five other players who have won the career Grand Slam, the most exclusive club in golf. Tiger Woods was the most recent member in 2000. The only player to complete the Grand Slam at Augusta National was Gene Sarazen in 1935, back when the modern version of the Grand Slam didn’t even exist and the Masters wasn’t even the Masters (it originally was called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament).

Considered one of the favorities this weekend, McIlroy found himself in the unusual position Tuesday of defending his decision earlier this year to play a round of golf with the president of the United States.

McIlroy told reporters that joining Donald Trump on the golf course “does not mean that I agree with everything that he says,” but admitted that the backlash and criticism he’s received since their Febraury outing has been so negative that he’d have to consider carefully before before accepting another invitation to join the president in the future.

“I’d think twice about it,” he said.

“To be called a fascist and a bigot by some people because I spent time in someone’s company is just ridiculous,” he wrote on Twitter.

This weekend in Georgia will be McIlroy’s third crack at the career Grand Slam since he won the third leg at the 2014 British Open.

He was the favorite in 2015 until Jordan Spieth blew everyone away.

Spieth, 23, who has played this tournament three times and never finished lower than second, is looking to recapture the magic of 2015, when he won his first major with a dominating 18-under score at Augusta.

“I really thoroughly enjoy this place and this week,” he insisted. “I seem to have more fun each year.”

McIlroy and Spieth were both expected this year to chase the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer, Dustin Johnson, who was the odds-on favorite going into this weekend — at least until he took a serious fall on a staircase Wednesday.

David Winkle of Hambric Sports says in an email that Johnson fell on the stairs of his rental home in Augusta on Wednesday. He says Johnson landed hard on his lower back and is resting with discomfort.

Doctors have advised Johnson to remain stable and start taking anti-inflammatory medication.

Winkle says Johnson hopes to be able to play Thursday.

Severe storms forced officials to suspend play at 1:25 p.m. Wednesday, cutting short the final afternoon of practice before the start of the tournament as well as the popular Par 3 Contest. The forecast is more promising through the rest of the week, though high winds Thursday and Friday could make the playing conditions challenging. Sunny weather, with highs in the 70s, is expected for the final two rounds Saturday and Sunday.

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