For most professional golfers, arriving at Augusta National is akin to a pilgrim seeing Jerusalem for the first time. The Green Jacket, Amen Corner, Raes Creek, the Butler Cabin, each one a monument of some grander vision dreamed up by its architect Bobby Jones nearly 90 years ago. Players speak of its majesty to a media who are just as in thrall to the place.
To those of us who’ve never been, some of what’s said can read like flagrant hyperbole — it is just a theatre that hosts a sporting event after all, not some alter to be worshipped at — but, by Sunday evening, we are left converted, convinced that this golf course and tournament possesses some higher power, an ability to deconstruct even the greatest talents, while bestowing redemption upon those humble enough to pay their penance.
This year was no exception, except we didn’t need to wait until Sunday to be saved; the proof came early Thursday as Rory McIlroy, one of the game’s greatest talents, slumped to an opening round of 76, before following it up with a forgettable 74. By the time he drove back down Magnolia Avenue on Friday night, you would forgive the Holywood man not bowing his head in reverence, but raising a single middle finger in bitter insult.
The Masters took McIlroy’s number many years ago, but it never called him back. Now, when it sees him coming, it weighs up just another wannabe suitor who says he loves the place, but isn’t willing to take the time to understand it’s nuance.
Golf is a sport for which sycophancy to nostalgia and tradition is a second language. In many respects, McIlroy’s emergence as a force represented a breath of fresh air for a game so devoid of any air at all, it can often appear asphyxiated by its own sense of self worth. His rise coincided with the gradual — then very sudden — decline of Tiger Woods, and, as our constant need for narrative demanded, McIlroy became the Anti-Woods; if Tiger was inscrutable, Rory was an open book.
If Woods had no obvious friends, McIlroy had so many he could fill a house in Augusta with them in 2011. When he crumbled on that fateful Sunday 10 years ago, it was supposed to be Rory’s non-Tigerness that would heal him and see him return in triumph. A decade later, McIlroy has never seemed as far away from hanging his jacket beside Woods in the Champions Locker Room.
He may feel his “all things to all men” persona has more than earned him a few off days, but, due to recent poor form, coupled with residual Augusta scar tissue, his disappearance without comment on Friday night was as expected as it was sadly inevitable.
This tournament does not dwell on those who don’t earn the right to stick around. McIlroy had ranked among the favourites by the bookmakers, but even that had a whiff of duty about it. His game in flux, his mind elsewhere. He is many things, but a grinder he is not.
It is said that performance equals potential minus distraction. There remains something off in this critical equation for McIlroy. He recently employed the services of swing guru Pete Cowen, citing the difficulties in getting access to his Irish-based coach Michael Bannon due to Covid-induced travel restrictions (Bannon, he insists, remains part of his team).
The fruits of Cowen’s involvement may take weeks to drop, and if and when they do, we may see a return of the old swagger, but it won’t be until the Masters next year before we learn whether anything has changed where it matters most — in McIlroy’s head.
Interestingly, he has retained the services of friend Harry Diamond as caddy. At first glance, this is not surprising, given that McIlroy has won five times in the almost four years his friend has been on his bag, but, for a guy with McIlroy’s talent, these numbers do not match his ambition.
It’s an open secret that McIlroy likes his caddies to just carry his bag, and not interfere with his game. Diamond, and the man he succeeded JP Fitzgerald, complement him well in this regard — but, the same frailties that surfaced on that Masters Sunday in 2011, still permeate today, and a change of personality on his bag may challenge him to confront whatever mental wall he continually fails to scale.
Consider the role played by Jordan Spieth’s caddy, Mike Greller, who acts as a lightning rod for Spieth’s many near-meltdowns (often in a single round). Spieth has endured many collapses, yet appears remarkably unfazed by them. McIlroy, in contrast, is in danger of being defined by his, in terms of Augusta at least.
“The mind is its own place,” Miltown told us in Paradise Lost, “and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”. McIlroy’s azalea-lined hell may be a relative one, but one that tortures his brilliant mind nonetheless.
Release from its grip might bring the one thing we all crave the most. Peace.