McIlroy’s moment: Why winning the Masters this year would mean more

McIlroy’s moment: Why winning the Masters this year would mean more

AUGUSTA, Ga. — AS RORY MCILROY started his pre-Masters news conference on Tuesday, he glanced to the side at a videoboard, which featured a photo of him triumphantly raising his arms after he chipped in from a bunker on the 72nd hole of the 2022 tournament.

It was the final shot of McIlroy’s latest attempt at becoming only the sixth golfer to complete the career Grand Slam in the Masters era, and although he once again fell short, he seems convinced that it was a turning point in his quest to join the most elite fraternity in the sport. It was an exclamation point on an 8-under 64 final round, which put him solo second on the leaderboard, 3 shots behind winner Scottie Scheffler.

“The only thing that I can say is that I proved to myself that I could do it,” McIlroy said. “As much as I didn’t really get into contention, there was a part of me on that back nine last year that felt that I had a chance, and to play the way I did and to eagle 13 and to have those feelings, in my mind, anyway, I felt like it was a breakthrough.”

McIlroy has won four major championships and captured victories 23 times on the PGA Tour and 15 times in Europe. He has been ranked No. 1 in the world nine times during his career, most recently just two months ago. Now ranked behind only Scheffler, he is once again among the favorites to win the Masters and add an elusive green jacket to his wardrobe.

To finally complete the career Grand Slam in his ninth attempt and end a more than eight-year drought without a major championship victory, McIlroy will have to battle more than the lightning-fast greens of Augusta National and a field that includes the best players in the world. He’ll also have to tackle the ghosts and scar tissue of past Masters failures that have plagued him.

“Not every experience is going to be a good experience,” McIlroy said. “I think that would lead to a pretty boring life. You know, you have to learn from those challenges and learn from some of that scar tissue that’s built up. I felt last year that I maybe shed some of that scar tissue and felt like I sort of made breakthroughs.”

FROM THE TIME McIlroy first showed up at Augusta National in 2009 with his floppy hair and yet-to-be-chiseled physique, the Northern Irishman seemed destined to win the Masters. With the way he smashes drives past competitors on rolling fairways, bends shots around tight corners with his natural draw and hits approach shots high into the air, Augusta National Golf Club seemed tailor-made for his game.

Now, 14 years later, we’re still waiting for him to win.

“What does he have to do?” 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples said. “I don’t know. Is it surprising he’s never won this? Of course, it is [with] the way he plays and the way he putts and how high he hits it and how far he hits it. But it’s not that easy.”

McIlroy has come close to winning. Along with his runner-up finish last year, he finished fourth in 2015 and tied for fifth in 2018 and 2020. His chances at joining Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen as the only players to win each of golf’s four majors were ultimately undone by one bad round at Augusta National.

“They said the same thing about Ernie Els [and] Greg Norman,” McIlroy said. “There’s been players before that that has been said. You know, this course is tailor-made for those players, and they haven’t [gone] on to win a green jacket. That’s always in my mind, too. It’s not just because a place is deemed, you know, perfectly set up for your game, it doesn’t automatically mean that you’re going to win it one day. There’s more to it than that.”

So can one final round or shot out of a greenside bunker erase everything bad that’s happened in the past? Ben Crenshaw knows a thing or two about pain and scar tissue. Although Crenshaw won two green jackets by capturing the Masters in 1984 and 1995, he went 0-for-8 in playoffs during his PGA Tour career, including a loss to David Graham in the 1979 PGA Championship, one of his five runner-up finishes in major championships.

Standing under the iconic oak tree between the clubhouse and the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club this week, the pain still seemed fresh for the 71-year-old Texan, even all these years later.

“You always remember pain out there,” Crenshaw said. “All of us in some regard are going to feel it because we’ve all experienced it. Sometimes a bounce-back happens and it erases in your brain. It’s hard to explain how you get rid of it.”

MCILROY’S SCAR TISSUE from Augusta National is thicker than most. As a 21-year-old, he had a 4-stroke lead heading into the final round in the 2011 Masters. McIlroy seemed nervous from the start in a final pairing with the intimidating Angel Cabrera. He carded a bogey on the first hole and had to scramble from a bunker to make par on the second. He held things together and was 1-over in the round after the first nine holes.

Then, with everyone from Woods to Jason Day to Adam Scott to Charl Schwartzel trying to chase him down, McIlroy buckled under pressure. On the par-4 10th hole, he snap-hooked his tee shot into the towering pines on the left. Somehow, his ball settled in pine straw between two cabins, about 70 yards from the fairway.

Three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo, working as an analyst on the CBS Sports broadcast, couldn’t believe where McIlroy’s ball ended up.

“My goodness,” Faldo said. “He must have hit a tree. That’s not much more than 150 yards off the tee.”

“I know he’s anxious to get to Butler Cabin,” CBS Sports play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz said of the cabin where the Masters champion traditionally slips on a coveted green jacket, “but it’s a little early.”

After finding his ball, McIlroy chipped out to the fairway. Then he hooked another shot with a 3-wood. He couldn’t get up and down after his fourth shot hit a tree limb and carded a triple-bogey 7. He fell from first to seventh on a crowded leaderboard.

Things would only get worse for McIlroy at Amen Corner. He three-putted for bogey on the 11th and four-putted for double bogey on the 12th. After McIlroy hooked his tee shot on the 13th into Rae’s Creek, he buried his head in his right arm with a look of defeat.

McIlroy posted an 8-over 80, the worst score for a final-round leader in the 75-year history of the tournament. He tied for 15th place at 4 under, 10 shots behind Schwartzel, the unlikely South African champion.

AFTER EMERGING FROM the clubhouse, McIlroy spoke to reporters about his forgettable round.

“Well, it’s going to be hard to take for a couple of days,” said McIlroy. “But I’ll be OK. I didn’t see it coming even though I know it’s happened before. It’s very disappointing.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I unraveled.”

McIlroy later acknowledged that he cried the next day, after talking to his mother, Rosie, on the telephone. She tried to assure him that everything was going to be OK, but he wasn’t so sure.

“It was one of those things,” McIlroy told the Guardian in December 2011. “There were so many thoughts and emotions going through my head. At the time it felt like the only chance I would have of winning at Augusta and I blew it.

“It could have been the crossroads of my career,” he said. “I could have done what I did on Sunday at Augusta and let it affect me and let it get to me, and maybe go into a slump or feel down or feel sorry for myself.”

McIlroy came out on the right side in the end. While there were concerns that McIlroy would never get over his collapse at the Masters, he claimed his first major championship about two months later when he won the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club by 8 strokes, setting records for the lowest 72-hole total (268) and lowest score under par (16 under). He added PGA Championship titles in 2012 and 2014 and the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool in 2014.

“If anything, it made me more determined to go back and prove to a lot of people, not just the media but everyone, and prove to myself as well that I wasn’t this person they were making me out to be in the press — a choker [who] can’t handle the pressure,” McIlroy said in 2011. “I was determined to show them that that wasn’t me.”

AND YET, WINNING a green jacket remains elusive. At 33 years old, time is still on McIlroy’s side. But with each passing year, the pressure to win the Masters only gets greater. Ahead of the 2017 Masters, McIlroy told Golf Digest that the stress from wanting to win a green jacket made it difficult for others to be around him before the tournament.

“I am, ask anyone who knows me, a complete p—k in the week leading up to Augusta,” McIlroy said. “But they understand and know that. It’s a stressful situation.”

McIlroy said Tuesday that he’s been working with renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who has written a dozen books about golf and psychology. Rotella, a former director of sports psychology at the University of Virginia, has a simple philosophy when it comes to what golfers should be thinking about in their pre-shot routines.

In his 2004 book, “The Golfer’s Mind,” Rotella wrote that people have been programmed to remember bad things that have happened since they were young. In the fourth grade, for example, teachers mark incorrect answers on a test with a red marker but leave the correct ones alone. Golfers remember their bad shots, but not their good ones. Mark Twain famously said that “the inability to forget is infinitely more devastating than the inability to remember.”

“Ideally, a golfer would remember eternally his best shots,” Rotella wrote. “When he confronted a difficult tee shot, or a lob from a tight lie, or a slippery putt, he’d recollect all the great shots he’d hit in similar situations in the past. He’d step up to the ball confidently, and this confidence would greatly enhance the chance that he’d hit another great shot. Unfortunately, too many of us have the opposite tendency. We remember our bad shots, and we forget our good ones.”

McIlroy planned to meet with Rotella in Augusta on Tuesday night.

“I think the best way for me to feel like I’m in a good headspace is to be as prepared as I possibly can be, and I feel really prepared,” McIlroy said. ” I think when you feel that way and you feel like you’ve done everything that you need to do, you sort of just get into a different level of comfort. I think I’m pretty much there.”

When McIlroy was asked whether his problems at Augusta National were more physical or mental, he said, “I would say the majority of mental or emotional struggles rather than physical. I’ve always felt like I have the physical ability to win this tournament. But it’s being in the right headspace to let those physical abilities shine through.”

“It’s been tentative starts, not putting my foot on the gas early enough,” McIlroy said. “I’ve had a couple of bad nine holes that have sort of thrown me out of the tournament at times. So it’s sort of just like I’ve got all the ingredients to make the pie. It’s just putting all those ingredients in and setting the oven to the right temperature and letting it all sort of come to fruition. But I know that I’ve got everything there. It’s just a matter of putting it all together.”

AFTER MAKING ADJUSTMENTS with his driver and changing putters before the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play last month, McIlroy’s game is in pretty good form. He has won three times since August, including the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake.

McIlroy hasn’t won a major since he hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy for a second time as the PGA Championship winner at Valhalla in August 2014. There have been plenty of near-misses, including a tie for fifth at the U.S. Open and a solo third at the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews last year. After having the lead or a co-lead at the end of rounds 17 times in his first 25 major championships, McIlroy didn’t hold a lead again in the next 30 until the final round of The Open in August. He shot a 2-under 70 over the final 18 holes and lost to Australia’s Cameron Smith by 2 strokes.

It was an all-too-familiar feeling for McIlroy. Since his last victory at Valhalla, there have been 31 majors played, which were won by 23 different golfers — but not him. It was the 17th time McIlroy had finished in the top 10 in a major, the most by any player since 2015, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He has finished in the top five nine times in majors, including in three of four last season.

“I’m only human. I’m not a robot,” McIlroy said at St. Andrews last year. “Of course you think about it, and you envision it, and you want to envision it. … And every time I go out, I’m trying to envision McIlroy at the top name on that leaderboard and how did that feel?

“I’ll be OK,” McIlroy said. “At the end of the day, it’s not life or death. I’ll have other chances to win the Open Championship and other chances to win majors.”

GIVEN THAT MCILROY has become a statesman of sorts for the PGA Tour during its ongoing battle with the LIV Golf League, the timing would be right for him to complete the career Grand Slam. McIlroy has sparred with Norman, the LIV Golf CEO, and had a dust-up with LIV Golf player Patrick Reed, a former Masters champion, at the Dubai Desert Classic in January. McIlroy and Woods were instrumental in reshaping the PGA Tour after several of its members, including major championship winners Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka and others, left for the LIV Golf League.

Starting at the JP McManus Pro-Am in Ireland in July, McIlroy and others began restructuring the PGA Tour to ensure that its top stars would be competing against each other more often — and for a lot more money. Woods and McIlroy led a meeting of the tour’s top players during the FedEx Cup playoffs in Wilmington, Delaware, in August, which led to many changes that were announced earlier this year. McIlroy’s role has opened him to criticism from lesser-ranked PGA Tour members, who are worried they’ll be left out of designated events with bigger purses.

“The thing that’s been so impressive about what he’s done and having seen where we were coming out of Delaware last year to where we are now, his leadership has manifested itself in a way where he has a very good grasp on and balance on the full picture and on the entire membership, and where we were last summer to where we are now is largely a reflection on the amount of time and energy he’s put into understanding that,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said.

After missing the cut at the Players Championship last month, McIlroy said he was “ready to get back to being purely a golfer.”

If McIlroy can figure out how to win at Augusta National Golf Club this week, he’ll be firmly among the game’s greatest players.

“Rory has the talent,” Woods said. “He has the game. He has all the tools to win here. It’s just a matter of time. A lot of things have to happen to win at this golf course. A lot of things have to go right. I think Rory has shown over the years he’s learned how to play this golf course, and you just have to understand how to play it.

“He’s been there. Last year he made a great run [and] put himself there. But I think that it’s just a matter of time, whether it’s this year or next or whenever it comes, he will get it done, and he will have a career Grand Slam. It’s just what year it will be; it will definitely happen.”

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