Yet McIlroy, a four-time major champion and still world No 1 can not only take solace from a lot of positives gained from his fourth-place finish at the Masters on Sunday, he can also take a leaf out of the rightful champion’s book and follow Jordan Spieth’s motivational journey to the ultimate success at Augusta National.
The seeds had been sown for Spieth’s remarkable and record-breaking victory at the Masters since his childhood in Dallas, Texas, watching Tiger Woods tear up Augusta for the first time in 1997 as a four-year-old; but the fuel for his victory was ignited by his debut here 12 months ago and the disappointment he experienced finishing second to Bubba Watson, having led the tournament with the eventual champion going into the final round.
He would lose out by three shots, finding no comfort in the fact he was making his Masters debut and rookies rarely win at Augusta National. Walking off the 72nd hole knowing you had a chance to win can light a fire under an ambitious young golfer and the thought of having to do that a second time was not an experience in which he wanted to partake.
Those emotions followed Spieth throughout the intervening months and just by way of a reminder, golf gave the 21-year-old the necessary jolt in the weeks previously as, having just won the Valspar Championship in Florida, the PGA Tour reached his native Lone Star State and he finished second in the Valero Texas Open and then missed out on victory at the Shell Houston Classic, losing out to JB Holmes in a play-off.
“I think it was not only last year; it was last week, the combination of the two,” Spieth said, the famous champion’s attire in place on Sunday night. “I was already hungry from last year, having already had an opportunity and watched it slip away and watched Bubba win and everything that came with Bubba being the Masters Champion, and the announcements of it, going on the shows and whatever, I knew I had a chance to win that tournament.
“So you get reminded of it all the time because when you’re Masters champion, it’s a different legacy. And so that definitely left me hungry. And then also, having a chance to win the last couple weeks and not quite pulling it off; I knew I was playing well, just needed to be rested enough to come in this week.
“So the combination of the two allowed me to keep my head down, not worry about anybody else in the field except myself and to play a golf course that is my favorite course in the world in Augusta National.”
McIlroy will need to harness that similar hurt he is experiencing now and which Spieth went through a year ago as the newly-minted champion does the rounds of American TV chat shows, and Twitter lights up with sightings of that elusive Green Jacket.
The Irishman has done it before. His Masters meltdown on the back nine of the Sunday in 2011 propelled the then 21-year-old towards a record-breaking US Open victory at Congressional Country Club just two months later.
Fostering that pain over a longer period and marrying that with the adjustments he has made to the way he negotiates Augusta National over his six previous Masters and ironing out the kinks from his seventh last week that left him six shots behind Spieth is his next mission.
The self-confessed immaturity in failing to cope with and rebound from a setback that was his downfall on the back nine four years ago has clearly gone. His mental strength has been a key ingredient in his return to the top of the world rankings and his back-to-back major victories at last summer’s Open and PGA Championships.
And his game is now better equipped to conquer Augusta National, not least the par-five holes that cost him a sniff of victory in 2014 when he failed to break par on them over four rounds.
McIlroy, too, managed to keep a big score off his card for the first time this year. The round of 77 or more that blighted his scorecards on an annual basis at the Masters disappeared as he shot a pair of 71s to open up with last Thursday and Friday, before firing 68-66 on the weekend to reach 12 under par. Yet the poor stretch of holes that so often derailed him in the first half of last year returned to haunt him on Friday as he carded a second-round front-nine of 40 to send him into a battle to make the halfway cut.
That he played so well after that is a testament to McIlroy’s rare golfing abilites but that Friday front nine will be a source of deep regret for some time to come. He simply left himself too much to do, too far from which to come back.
“I played well,” said McIlroy, reflecting on his 2015 Masters. “I can take a lot of positives from it. It is my best ever finish here. I played the last 45 holes in 15 under par. I did a lot of things I wanted to do. I played the par fives well. Just left myself too much to do after 27 holes of this golf tournament. Forty on the front nine on Friday, that really left me with an uphill battle. It was just great to get in for the weekend and made the most of a great finish on Friday.”
Twelve under at the Masters is a total McIlroy would have bitten anyone’s hand off for this time a week ago and would take every year going forward. It would have been good enough to win the last three Masters and either win or get into a play-off at all but three renewals since the turn of the century.
He will feel he has more than paid his dues at the Masters. He has experienced enough and made the solid improvements with every appearance here to suggest there is a Green Jacket with his name sewn into it and his fellow Irishman and major champion Darren Clarke believes it is only a matter of time before that expectation becomes a reality.
“Rory’s Rory. He can win anywhere, any time, any week,” Clarke said on Sunday evening. “If it’s not this year, I still believe his game is perfect for here and he will win here.”
Despite Clarke’s and many others’ convictions, Spieth may have a significant influence over McIlroy’s ability to get the job done at Augusta National and the American was still settling in to his Green Jacket when he announced his intention to win more of them.
“I want to be like Bubba, I want to win two Masters,” Spieth declared with a smile. “I’m excited already to come back. I’m excited for the opportunity ahead this year to be the reigning Masters champion. I know that’s going to carry a heavy weight with it. I hope to be ready for it and certainly can ask guys like Bubba and other Masters champions before on what that means, and I’m sure I’ll figure it out in the next year.”
The gauntlet has been laid down. It is now up to McIlroy to finally meet the challenge and fulfil his Masters destiny.