There are three certainties in life. Death, taxes, and Rory McIlroy’s Grand Slam quest providing one of the loudest sub-plots to Masters week.
This year marks McIlroy’s seventh attempt to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods in the most exclusive club in golf. It was never a matter of if, but when for a curly-haired McIlroy who raced to four Major titles by the age of 25 in 2014. Only a Green Jacket remained to complete the set and for many, Augusta National presented McIlroy’s best chance at a Major in any given year.
His natural right to left ball-flight, his distance off the tee, his proven track record on the golf course all pointed to multiple Green Jackets for the mercurial McIlroy, but since letting slip a four-shot 54-hole lead in 2011, McIlroy’s confidence around the Cathedral in the Pines has never looked the same. Still, despite the scar tissue, he still holds onto the good memories as much as he can entering any given Masters week.
The good – they’re the memories you want to keep and you want to hold onto,” McIlroy said. “Whether it’s the great stuff from 2011 or I guess the charge I put in the Saturday in 2018, but you have to take your lessons from the — from the not so good stuff, as well, right. I played in the final group in 2016 with Jordan on the Saturday. Didn’t go quite the way I wanted it to.
“Obviously there’s been another few rounds here where I’ve sort of put myself behind the 8-ball not being able to get any momentum. But they are all learning lessons and you just try to go out there the next time and do a little bit better, and that’s all I can do is go out there and try my best.”
This year McIlroy heads to the tournament amid a real battle with his golf swing. He ground out of a share of tenth place at the Arnold Palmer Invitational but chinks appeared in his armour around Bay Hill that unravelled the following week at TPC Sawgrass. There, the delayed defence of The Players Championship title he won in 2019 ended on a dour note for McIlroy, a 10-over par two-round tally where he confessed that pursuing the driving distance bar set by Bryson DeChambeau had been to the detriment of his swing.
“The swing issues – where it all stems from is probably like October last year, doing a little bit of speed training, started getting sucked into that stuff, and swing got flat, long and too rotational,” McIlroy revealed.
“I thought being able to get some more speed is a good thing and maybe just to the detriment a little bit of my swing, I got there. I just need to maybe rein it back in a little bit.”
To help in those endeavours, McIlroy has added swing-guru, Pete Cowen to his team, but whether the pair have had enough time together to eliminate the two-way miss that was introduced to his game amid that need for speed remains to be seen. Still, McIlroy fans can be heartened because little form means less expectation. Grand Slam burdens weigh heavily enough on McIlroy’s head without pre-tournament favouritism piling on more pressure.
In 2019, McIlroy drove up Magnolia Lane in the form of his life having achieved a level of consistency many believed he couldn’t, with six top-6 finishes from six starts before finally getting over the line in top spot at The Players Championship. Favouritism followed at Augusta but a first round 73 set the tone for another disappointing week amongst the azaleas as McIlroy saved a 68 for Sunday, his best round of the week, before finishing outside the top-20.
To suggest McIlroy is coming in under the radar would be a stretch considering what’s on the line should he drape himself in green but with five-time Masters winner, Tiger Woods out of the conversation through injury, the spotlight won’t be far from McIlroy’s head regardless of his form. The difference this year is that he has Cowen in his corner with the pair determined to look forward at the player McIlroy can become and forget the one he once was when winning majors now some seven years ago.
“I feel like there’s been a lot of looking back to try to go forward instead of just saying, okay, this is where we are, this is the present, this is what you’ve got to work with, let’s go forward from here,” McIlroy added.
“There’s been a lot of, oh, well, back in 2014 I did this or look at this. You know, that’s a long time ago now and you can’t change the past. You can’t — it’s not as if you can just magically delve back into it and bring it all back to life. Pete and I had a conversation about that. This is me and this is what you have to work with and we go from here.
“I think that golfer going forward is just a little more knowledgeable about what he does and how he swings the club and the movements that he needs to make to basically hit three shots, right: Hit a draw, hit a fade, hit one straight. That’s all you need to do in the game of golf. It’s not that hard. It seems it at times.
“And that’s really it. Just more of an understanding of what I’m doing and being able to immediately address, okay, this shot happened because of this and I’m going to make sure that’s not going to happen again for the rest of the round.
“And I think being a little bit more in control of what I do; playing a little more conservatively, you know, taking the big numbers out of play, maybe taking a couple of more clubs into certain greens and hitting it softer, controlling the ball flight, yeah, just being a little bit more in control of everything. I think that’s the golfer I want to — a few more three-quarter shots, not hitting everything flat-out. That’s the sort of golfer that I want to be going forward.”
Nobody doubts McIlroy’s got the game to win at Augusta, but does he have the belief to put himself in contention down the stretch once more? Golfing immortality awaits McIlroy if he can play with the handbrake off from the start. But make no mistake, it’s a big if.