Throughout the previous three days of tough, attritional golf, McIlroy and the leader Patrick Reed had skillfully separated themselves from their closest rivals.
The title was now theirs to win or lose and despite trailing the majorless Reed by three shots, McIlroy’s form and pedigree meant that he started out the final day as the clear favourite.
But he didn’t deliver on Sunday and I would now like to break down and rank the individual components of his game to explain why.
Driving the Ball: 5
One of McIlroy’s great strengths throughout his professional career has been the accuracy and power he can deliver from the tee box. Comfortable hitting the ball both directions, McIlroy’s driving ability was a huge weapon against the field around Augusta. But having started out hitting a brilliant 86% of his fairways in Round one, McIlroy on Sunday was way below the day’s average at 50%.
From the very first hole on Sunday, it was apparent that during his transition from the top McIlroy was getting the club trapped too far behind himself which resulted in him losing the ball right all day. Although not disastrous, it did mean that he lost a lot of distance on a course which heavily favoured a draw (right to left shot), resulting in longer than normal shots into the green.
Approach shots to the greens: 4
Apart from his brilliant shot to the second and fourth greens, McIlroy seemed woefully out of sorts all day with his approach shots. Usually one of his great strengths, his poor play, starting with his second to the third and fifth holes, meant that he simply couldn’t sustain any sort of a competitive challenge on a course that demands precision approach play.
Short play around the greens: 7
McIlroy’s recent improvement in form can be largely put down to his vastly improved short game and on Sunday we once again saw glimpses of that on holes like the first, where an up and down out of the bunker allowed him to build some early momentum. However, as the realisation that he couldn’t win the tournament sunk in, his short game deteriorated as he moved away from his pre-shot routines and started to rush.
McIlroy’s huge surge in form on the putting greens is very much linked to his work with Brad Faxon, who has attempted to move him away from ridged mechanical thoughts to a more natural rhythm that complements his game. When analysing McIlroy’s chances pre-tournament, my greatest fear for him always centred around his putting performance and on Sunday those fears played out, especially on the early holes when he had a real opportunity to put himself into the mix.
That said, I believe that McIlroy is now on the right track working with Faxon. Consistent work will produce more consistency as long as he trusts himself. Now is not the time to abandon Faxon.
It is now over three years since McIlroy last won a major championship and Sunday provided a perfect snapshot of many of the reasons why he has not got over the winning line in the intervening years. Putting it simply, it takes a lot more than natural ability and while no one questions his desire or indeed his preparation for this event, he must be honest with himself and redouble his efforts if he really wants to be recognised as one of the game’s greatest ever players.
No one doubts that he has all the tools to achieve almost whatever he wants in the game — but many of the greats in the game are openly questioning whether he has the desire and the willingness to give up some other things.
Putting it bluntly, and no disrespect to Harry Diamond, it smacks of arrogance bringing an inexperienced caddy to what is probably the most difficult course in the world – a course where local knowledge and experience is at a premium.
On Sunday, we got a perfect snapshot of Jordan Spieth, Ricky Fowler and Patrick Reed working tirelessly with their caddies and I have no doubt that a more experienced caddy on Sunday could have kept McIlroy more focused on the job at hand.
McIlroy also has to learn to ‘grind’ harder. Championship golf is as much if not more about managing the bad shots. Time and again last Sunday we saw how sloppy bogeys and poor course management impacted his performance and psyche.
The careers of Nicklaus and Woods are remembered less for when they hit every fairway or knocked down flagsticks and made all the putts. What made them so great was the number of times they won without their A games. This is the part McIlroy can’t quite get. And more and more you get the sense that he lacks the necessary conviction to properly address this fact.
Perhaps the greatest motivation for McIlroy though is that it is widely recognised now that Spieth is the man who currently leads the way when it comes to major championship glory. In a few short months he will be chasing his own ‘Grand Slam’ glory at the PGA Championship. You presume McIlroy would like to have his own say about that.