It was all too perfect, too simple, too much of a storybook finish for Rory McIlroy to win this week. The Golf Gods had a different plot in mind. On the threshold of history, McIlroy arrived at Augusta National for his pursuit of a green jacket in fine fettle. This was supposed to be the year he achieved immortality and became just the sixth player to complete the career grand slam.
The script surely didn’t feature McIlroy starting his final round relegated to a 10th-tee start time, among the also-rans finishing out on the ninth green as the leaders were playing Amen Corner.
“Nice and quiet,” he said of his walk up to the ninth green.
McIlroy closed in his best round of the tournament, 68, but he proved to be a non-factor, finishing T-21, his worst result at the Masters since 2013.
“Honestly, I’m okay,” McIlroy said after completing the tournament. “It seems like you guys are more disappointed than I am. I’m good.”
Golf is unpredictable. World No. 1 Justin Rose was sent packing on Friday. Even Tiger Woods waited 10 years and nine months to get his hands on any of the four majors again, let alone zeroing in on the one that has eluded him.
It was never going to be easy, but McIlroy seemed to have ticked all the boxes in his Masters prep. Every facet of his game appears incrementally stronger this season and his mental approach and new attitude lifted him to new heights at The Players Championship.
“I’ve never seen him as poised as he is right now,” Graeme McDowell said ahead of the Masters.
“I think his attitude is in a great place right now. He’s like a different guy.”
You could argue that McIlroy entered the Masters playing the best golf of his life, which is saying something for a man who has won four major championships and a couple of them by eight strokes. So what went wrong?
There are all kinds of little clues during a round of golf and tells by a player that reveal if he is mentally in the right place to handle the pressure-cooker that is the back nine Sunday at Augusta.
Paul McGinley, commentating for Sky Sports at the Masters, noted that when McIlroy gets anxious his tendency is to miss putts to the right. In the opening round, McIlroy made six bogeys and ranked last in the field in putting from inside 10 feet. Time and again, he left the blade open and missed to the right en route to shooting 73. It was his undoing a year ago when he played in the final pairing last season alongside Patrick Reed and it remains a concern.
“I just haven’t been getting much out of my round,” McIlroy said after a second straight 71 on Saturday. “I’ve just been making too many mistakes.”
He started the final round 12 strokes off the pace and was left grasping at straws to explain what went wrong. He made a curious claim that the first cut at Augusta was a quarter to half-inch longer than he remembered it.
“It’s just hard to get control of your ball out of it,” McIlroy explained. “I just haven’t driven it in the fairway enough to have control going into these greens.”
Yet he still managed to play the par fives in 11-under for the week, and blamed his driving accuracy for his poor play on the par-fours, which he played in seven-over for the week.
“Once you get yourself out of position it’s very hard to put yourself back in position,” McIlroy said. “You miss greens, trying to get it up and down, you put pressure on yourself.”
No matter how McIlroy spins it, this is another lost year in his quest to join golf’s most exclusive club. He suggested he may alter his schedule in the lead up to the Masters next go-round.
“I was talking to my dad on the way here this morning, saying I might play the week before,” said McIlroy, who skipped the Valero Texas Open last week and prepped at Augusta. “If anything I just wasn’t quite as sharp as I have been in previous weeks. I think I realised over the past couple of years the best way for me personally to get ready for tournaments is play the week before.”
In a year’s time, he’ll still be only 30. There is this sense that time is on McIlroy’s side. He should have another dozen tries and his game is too good to never win here. But that’s what they once said about the likes of Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf, Greg Norman, David Duval, and Ernie Els, who are in a less desirable club of major champions who all had one arm inside a green jacket but never got to slip it on.
“That’s promised to nobody and as each year ticks on the likelihood gets smaller and smaller,” Duval said. “The window keeps closing.”
McIlroy accepted that it wasn’t to be his week, but there may be plenty more weeks that are.
“There’s still so much good golf left this year, three major championships and all of that sort of stuff, big events and I’ll move on from this pretty quickly and just get ready for the next few months,” he said.
But whether he wants to admit it or not, this Masters will be remembered for McIlroy as a major letdown.
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