Rory McIlroy chalked up another top-10 finish at the Masters but knows he will need to do much better if he is to realise his potential and claim one of those famous green jackets.
At 27, he believes he is inching closer to the victory that will secure his place in golfing legend as a winner of all four major championships and that he has served his apprenticeship after a decade of playing at Augusta National.
Yet the tie for seventh place on Sunday night, after rounds of 72, 73, 71 and 69, left him a frustrated bystander as his European Ryder Cup team-mates Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia battled it out for glory on a dramatic evening in Georgia, the Spaniard edging past his English friend in sudden death to claim his first major in 74 starts.
McIlroy is 10 years younger than Garcia and has already won four majors, two PGA Championships, the US Open and, most recently, the Open Championship he won in 2014.
Which means this was his third attempt at securing the career grand slam only five men have managed to complete in the modern era of four professional majors.
For the second year in succession, he found himself six shots off the pace at Augusta National, against contemporaries he will feel he should be surpassing in the white heat of an elite tournament.
“I feel like I’ve finished five or six back the last few years so give me a six shot start and I’m your man,” McIlroy joked following his closing 69 on Sunday evening. “I feel encouraged if nothing else.
“I feel comfortable on the golf course, like every time I tee up I’ve got a chance to win. I’ve had four top-10s in a row here. Top 10s isn’t what I’m looking for, but at the same time the ups and downs I’ve had here in the past, it doesn’t quite seem to be so up and quite so down. It seems a little more steady, and that can only bode well for the future.”
McIlroy added: “‘14, ‘15, ‘16, ‘17, it’s been a transitional period where I feel like I figured it out... “I’m figuring out how to get my way around here. And even if I don’t have my best stuff, I’m still getting in in 72, 71, so you’re not shooting yourself out of the tournament.
“Coming off the golf course (on Saturday, following a one-under 71) I was frustrated. But after Sunday I’m encouraged again just from how I felt around the course. I felt comfortable. I felt like I had a really good chance. I prepared really well. I came up here a couple of times (pre-tournament week) and enjoyed my time here and just played. And I feel that serves me well, and that’s something I’m totally going to adapt in the future.”
McIlroy is relishing the rest of his season, which will see the US Open in June played for the first time at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, followed by The Open at Royal Birkdale in July and the PGA at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, South Carolina, one of his favourite American courses where he has twice won PGA Tour events.
“I’m looking forward to getting back out there in a few weeks and just competing again and having the chance to win a tournament.
“Erin Hills is an unknown for everyone but Birkdale is one of the best Open Courses on the roster and we are going to Quail for the PGA and I’ve had success there in the past. There is nothing but positives ahead, I feel, and my game feels in good shape.
“ I’ve turned my focus to getting ready for the US Open in June and trying to add to my major tally there.”
Before he gets to Erin Hills, McIlroy will continue to fine-tune his equipment in the wake of his sponsors, Nike, withdrawing from club and ball production. The Irishman played with Callaway clubs at Augusta and a Titleist ball, though the latter is under review.
“I need to change my golf ball. That’s a big thing. I thought my golf ball this week was doing weird things in the wind. It was very inconsistent so there’s one thing I will change and try to work on the next few weeks.
“I feel I’m swinging it as good as I have been for a long time, I’ve done a lot of good work with Michael (Bannon, his swing coach) over the last couple of weeks, my putting feels as good as it has done in a long time.
“I maybe didn’t drive it was well as I could have done in the first couple of days here but I’m not putting that down to anything as I feel like I’m a good driver of the golf ball. I’m going to tinker with some equipment over the next couple of weeks and find something better.”
A different quest will reach its conclusion before then, however, with McIlroy set to marry fiancee Erica Stoll later this month at Ashford Castle in Mayo.
After his Masters disappointment, though, he has been forced into a wardrobe rethink.
“I’m excited. It’s a great time in my life and it would have been nice to walk down the aisle in the green jacket,” he said, before adding: “If the members would have allowed me. If Mr Payne (Augusta National chairman Billy Payne) would have allowed me.
“We’re very excited, it’s a great time in our lives and it’s all about that over the next couple of weeks and I’ll come back at the Players (beginning May 11) refreshed and a married man and start a new chapter in my life.”