Always a favorite at the Masters, Rory McIlroy makes it no secret he covets elusive green jacket

Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports

Always a favorite at the Masters, Rory McIlroy makes it no secret he covets elusive green jacket

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Always a favorite at the Masters, Rory McIlroy makes it no secret he covets elusive green jacket

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Rory McIlroy knew he had a problem even before he walked onto the first tee for the final round of the 2018 Masters. He was playing in the last pairing alongside Patrick Reed. The pugnacious American had a three-stroke advantage, but McIlroy was painfully aware of what sleeping on the lead at Augusta National can do to a man who hasn’t yet won a major championship.

In 2011, a 21-year-old McIlroy took a four-shot cushion into Sunday but tumbled to an ugly 80. He won the very next major by eight shots, and by the time the Northern Irishman faced the media on the eve of his showdown with Reed he was only a green jacket shy of the career grand slam, something only five golfers in history have accomplished.

“I feel like all the pressure is on him,” McIlroy said that Saturday night. “He’s got to go out and protect that and he’s got a few guys chasing him that are pretty big-time players. He’s got that to deal with and sleep on tonight. I feel I can go out there and play like I’ve got nothing to lose.”

But his Sunday dawned with an entirely different feeling.

“I had a terrible warm-up. I was hitting everything left,” McIlroy recalled recently while sitting in a quiet corner of the locker room at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. “I sort of know what’s happening. Michael [Bannon, his coach] doesn’t want to say anything before the final round of Augusta. Then, first tee shot I hit it 40 yards right by trying not to hit it left. And that’s the way it was all day. I had this two-way miss going. It wasn’t quite there from the start and I was fighting it. I tried to hang in but I just didn’t have it.”

Enormous expectations

It’s a golfer’s maxim that as soon as one part of his game begins to hum, another starts to hurt. The 2018 Masters was arguably the first major at which McIlroy arrived with more confidence in the shortest club in his bag than the longest. Last March 12 he had a putting lesson with PGA Tour veteran Brad Faxon. Six days later he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, requiring only 100 putts for 72 holes, the best performance of his career. Through three rounds at the Masters, his newfound confidence with the putter disguised troubling issues with his full swing.

But Sundays in Augusta tend to expose every weakness a player has. McIlroy shot a mediocre 74 and finished six strokes behind Reed in a tie for fifth. It was his fifth consecutive top-10 finish in the event.

“I guess good and bad things,” he replied when asked what he took from the disappointment. “I don’t need to have my best stuff and I can still give myself a chance. But I know if I want to win it one day I’m going to have to have close to my best for the entire week to get it done.”

This week McIlroy will make his 11th run at a green jacket, his fifth since it became the only major absent from his resumé. The expectations would be enormous even if he wasn’t in the finest burst of form he has shown since that epic summer of 2014. Which he is. In seven PGA Tour starts in 2019 he hasn’t finished outside the top 10, including a stirring victory last month at the Players Championship, the toughest field he’ll face all year.

It was his 15th win on Tour and his first since Bay Hill a year earlier. His continuing work with Faxon has nudged him up to a respectable rank of 56th in Strokes Gained Putting entering the Masters — not impeccable, but enough when combined with his other imposing weapons to make him a threat on any golf course. Especially a course where he is riding a streak of five top-10 finishes.

Rory McIlroy Players Championship

Rory McIlroy was golden at the Players Championship last month. (John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports)

The Masters is renowned not just for the champions it has crowned but the hearts it has broken. Greg Norman’s, most infamously. He was second three times and third another three. Tom Weiskopf was a bridesmaid four times and Johnny Miller thrice. Tom Kite finished in the top five on nine occasions, but like all of the above, he too is eating elsewhere when the Champions Dinner is called to order on Tuesday of Masters week.

That McIlroy keeps posting high finishes in the one tournament he needs to complete the career grand slam has spurred lazy comparisons to the ghosts of Masters past, bumbling efforts to hang a millstone on the neck of a man who is still only 29 (all of Norman’s near-misses at Augusta came after 31). The reality is that McIlroy is judged not on his failures at the Masters but on his early successes everywhere else.

He had just turned 25 when he captured the third leg of the slam at the British Open in 2014, the same year he won his fourth major at the PGA Championship. That he is missing only the Masters is a fact that fans remind him of regularly.

“It definitely follows me around,” he admitted. “I play the Tour in January, February and March and it’s,‘Rooting for you at Augusta, Rory!’ and, you know, ‘You’re going to get the Masters this year!’ People know that I want it, and I’ve said that I embrace that because I know what I need to do and I know I have the tools to do it. I mean, I’ve had five top-10s in a row there. It’s not as if I’m that far away.”

And if he never slips on that coveted jacket? McIlroy says disappointment would never degrade into bitterness. “Say I never won the Masters. I would never resent that. I would never resent the course or the tournament,” he said. “I always have the mind-set that I get to spend my week playing here and competing in the Masters, and that’s awesome.”

The elite circle of grand slam champions

Gary Player was 29 when he completed the “impregnable quadrilateral” at the 1965 U.S. Open and expects to welcome McIlroy into the club eventually. “I really like Rory’s prospects to win at Augusta, and he’s been my pick every year since the career grand slam became a possibility for him,” Player said. “This accomplishment is no doubt the most celebrated in golf. There are only five of us in this little club, and it’s the holy grail of golf.”

Player lists legends who fell one major title short of membership, names like Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson. “Rory has that ‘it’ factor to get the job done,” he added. “Augusta National certainly suits his game.”

Former Masters champion and Grand Slam winner Gary Player expects Rory McIlroy (above) to figure it out at Augusta National and join his elite club. (Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports)

The consistently impressive results prove that, of course. But when asked how many of those high finishes he really felt he had an opportunity to win, McIlroy mentioned last year, but not that disappointment in 2011, as though it were a different player in a different time.

“The one that I think I could have done a lot better in was ’16. I played in the last group with Jordan (Spieth) on Saturday. I shot 77 and sort of shot myself out of it,” he remembered. The next day he watched Spieth’s epic collapse as Danny Willett emerged victorious. “I’m thinking, ‘Jeez, I played behind Danny Willett.’ That was a chance.”

He pauses thoughtfully. “I can’t even remember ’17, so obviously I didn’t have a chance there,” he said with a loud burst of laughter. “But I top 10’d!”

“I’ve played well enough. Whether it’s that stretch of nine holes where I might shoot 38 or I don’t take advantage of some opportunities, it’s just about putting it together for one week. Everything is sort of there,” he said. “I’m not too far away, but the margins in this game are so small that the difference between being not too far away and lifting the trophy on Sunday is a percentage here or there. It’s not much at all.”

McIlroy turns 30 three weeks after the 2019 Masters. If we’re sitting in a country club locker room two decades from now when you’re about to make your debut on the senior circuit, he is asked, how many Masters will you have won? His laughter peals around the room. “It will be easier to answer that question when I get my first one,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll answer that on Sunday night this year and say, ‘Yeah, I’ve got it done.’” Gwk

 
 

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