Rory McIlroy must deal again with expectation of favouritism

Two weeks to go and the Masters hype is building nicely, writes Kevin Markham.

It can’t be easy being Rory McIlroy. One of his greatest burdens has been expectation. How far back that goes is anybody’s guess. To his glorious amateur days? To his Silver Medal at Carnoustie? To the 2011 Masters that looked like his first major for the taking?

For all he had achieved to that point in his career, it was clear that after three days at Augusta in April 2011, a new superstar had arrived… one capable of reaching the same heights as Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus.

By the end of that Sunday, after crashing to a heart- rending 80, the 21-year-old Rory had squandered a four-shot lead. The image of Rory with his head buried in his arm after his tee shot on the 13th summed up his day and started his love/hate relationship with Augusta.

In the seven years since then he has collected four majors, including the US Open just two months after his Masters collapse. It is an impressive achievement but this tally is still considerably fewer than anticipated. He continues to pursue the Grand Slam, which requires him to win at Augusta. 

Many believed this was the major he was destined to win… and many still do. Now, on the back of his PGA Players victory, the hype has built once again.

McIlroy’s odds were slashed from 12/1 before the Players to 7/1 after he lifted the trophy.

He is now the favourite and talk of the grand slam will rise to fever pitch in the days ahead.

This will be no more than in previous years. Indeed, since Rory made his debut at Augusta in 2009 (including 2011), he has had four excellent chances to win the Masters, but failed to do so...

2011: 

There’s little need to pick over the bones of Rory’s final-day disaster. Leading by four going in to the final round, his lead was down to one by the time he reached the turn. 

He then produced a 43-stroke back nine that included ‘that’ drive on 10, a three-putt on 11 and a four-putt from 20 feet on 12. Charl Schwartzel won by two strokes.

2012: 

Rory finished T40… but he was in third place going in to the weekend. His rounds of 77 and 76 dropped him far behind the eventual winner, Bubba Watson. 

He started the third round with a double bogey and repeated the offence at the 7th. 

Playing with Sergio, McIlroy received an unexpected hug from the Spaniard after both players made their first birdie of the day on the par three 12th.

2016: 

In one of the most appealing pairings in years, the third round saw the 2015 winner, Jordan Spieth, tee off alongside Rory in the final group. 

Just a single stroke behind Spieth on the first tee, Rory made not one birdie on the Saturday and was five shots adrift of his playing partner by the close. He slumped to a 77. 

His anticipated Sunday charge floundered early as he made three bogeys in the first five holes. His final round did include seven birdies but the poor start meant his pursuit of the green jacket was over early. 

Spieth also floundered on the final day and allowed Danny Willett to win by three strokes.

2018:

A case of what might have been. This was probably his best chance at winning the Masters since 2011. 

The start of the season had not been good for Rory but, after missing the cut at the Valspar Championship, the advice of the putting supremo, Brad Faxon, changed all that.

McIlroy won at Bay Hill the following week and he went to Augusta three weeks later with a spring in his step… and the grand slam whispers growing increasingly louder.

After two good opening rounds (69, 71) a blistering bogey-free 65 on Saturday moved McIlroy up the leaderboard and into the final pairing with Patrick Reed.

“I’ve been waiting for this chance, to be honest,” McIlroy said after his round. 

“I always have said that, you know, 2011 was a huge turning point in my career. It was the day that I realised I wasn’t ready to win major championships, and I needed to reflect on that and realise what I needed to do differently. But now I am ready. I learned a lot from it.

“I’m happy to be in the final group. Obviously I’m not in the lead like I was going into that day, so I probably don’t have as much pressure. I don’t have to protect anything. 

I can go out and sort of freewheel like I did today, which is a great position to be in. I wish I was a little closer to the lead or leading, but I’m in the final group and I’ve shot 65 on moving day at the Masters. It’s all I can ask for.

There was no doubt that he was up for the challenge that awaited on Sunday.

He was three shots behind Reed going in to Sunday, and by the par five second hole he had a four-foot eagle putt to draw level with his playing partner. 

It was a poor effort and his birdie was scant consolation. An even poorer bogey followed on the par four third as his approach shot from a perfect position was well short of the green. The rot had set in. He went on to bogey holes 5, 8, 11, and 14 and despite three birdies he finished with a 74 in a tie for fifth place.

“Any time I got momentum I gave it away on the next hole,” Rory said afterwards. 

I was trying to hit good shots and hit good putts. But every time I hit a good one I ended up on the wrong side of the hole. And when I did get opportunities, I didn’t take them. Every time I took a step forward I took one backwards on the next hole. The bogeys on the third and the fifth both followed birdies and are the two holes I will look back on with most regret.

Reed, having never led a major on the last day, performed admirably, recording a 71 that included a clutch four-foot par putt on the last. He won by a single stroke. 

Had Rory made that eagle putt and applied the pressure early, who knows how Reed would have handled the pressure?

And now, one wonders, what will happen in 2019? Will Rory thrive or will he wither with all that weight of expectation once again? The hallowed turf of Augusta awaits and, just as is said every year, we’re expecting fireworks as the world’s best golfers all chase the green jacket. There have been recent flashes of form from all of them.

Should he win the 2019 Masters, Rory will join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Tiger Woods as the only winners of all four of golf’s majors.

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