Ireland’s two-time Major champion and world No 9 finished his sixth Masters with his best round of the week, a three-under-par 69 which left him at level par for the tournament.
Yet, even that lowest score of the opening Major of the season served as a reminder of McIlroy’s shortcomings around this revered Georgia course as the six birdies he sank were accompanied by three bogeys and a collection of missed opportunities.
Most damning of all was his scoring on the par-five holes at 2, 8, 13 and 15, where over four rounds on holes which any winner needs to pick up birdies or better, McIlroy managed to card a score of level par for the week.
He bogeyed both the 13th and 15th last night and cut a frustrated figure after signing for his 69, although he vowed to use the next fortnight’s practice to get his putting in order and attack the remainder of the season with gusto.
“I’ve played well. I’ve driven the ball as well as I have, ever, I think,” McIlroy told the BBC. “I’m driving the ball so well, so long, and for the most par straight, and I’ve given myself so many opportunities for birdies. I’m just not holing the putts that I need to or that I should.
“So I’ve got a couple of weeks off to work on that and I’ll hopefully come back to the Tour with a little more confidence in my short game and if my long game’s still there it looks like it will be a good season.”
As for the par-fives, McIlroy was acutely aware of his shortcomings as another attempt at Masters glory went abegging.
“I finished even par for the tournament, I’ve finished even par on the par fives. It’s not good enough around here. You try and play the par fives at least 10 under par and if you look at some of the leaders I think that’s what they’ll finish on, somewhere around that for the par fives and that will obviously be good enough to win.
“So I’ll come back next year, try and putt a little better and play the par fives better and you never know.”
As McIlroy spoke, overnight leaders Spieth and Watson were shaping up to turn the 78th Masters into a two-horse race. The Americans had started the final round as co-leaders on five under par with just a one-shot lead separating them from a pack led by compatriot Matt Kuchar and Sweden’s Jonas Blixt, with Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez and another American, Rickie Fowler on three under.
Spieth, at age 20 bidding to eclipse Tiger Woods as the youngest ever Masters champion and become the first debutant winner since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, looked cool, calm and collected as he began his round alongside 2012 champion Watson.
Indeed, it was left-hander Watson who showed early signs of nerves as he bogeyed the third hole and Spieth birdied to open up a two-shot lead.
At the turn, though, the advantage had been flipped, Watson with a birdie at the par-four ninth, which Spieth, showing signs of that Texan temperament unravelling somewhat, bogeyed to fall two behind with nine to play and Kuchar and Blixt both pegged on four under.
Darren Clarke, Ireland’s other survivor of the halfway cut, closed out his Masters with a 76 to finish the tournament at nine over par, while Graeme McDowell, who missed the cut for the second year in-a-row at Augusta National, was already on his way south to Hilton Head Island for the defence next week of his RBC Heritage title as the PGA Tour resumes in South Carolina.