It’s hard to believe this year will be Rory McIlroy’s 14 attempt to claim the most famous garment in golf. The green jacket has always looked tailor made for McIlroy’s locker with his natural towering draw the ideal fit to navigate Augusta’s pine-trees that seem to favour a right-to-left ball flight.
With three majors successfully conquered, and four in total, this will be Rory’s eighth run at completing the coveted “Grand Slam”. Golfing immortality awaits should McIlroy make his way to the Butler Cabin on Sunday, so you would think the pressure builds as each year passes him by.
“I would say I feel less pressure now,” said a mature McIlroy, now 32, a father and a husband. “My best finish was the first go around to try to win the slam [4th in 2015, -12 total]. Jordan played wonderfully that week. I played well, maybe not as well as I could, but I played pretty much up to my potential, and it just wasn’t good enough that week.
“I think as well, that was at a different stage of my life where back then golf was everything. Obviously, look, it’s still very, very important, but maybe back then, I don’t know if I would feel like I was fulfilled if I didn’t win one or whatever it is, but it’s less pressure.
“I know if I play well, I’ll give myself chances to win this golf tournament. It’s just a matter of going out there and executing the way you know that you can and stick to your game plan and be patient and be disciplined and all the things you need to do around Augusta National.
“If I think back to 2015 when I was coming off that run, yeah, there’s certainly less pressure now than there was then.”
There have been chances in the interim but 2018 still stands out as the one McIlroy feels he tried too hard on tournament week to rewrite the history books. A moving day 65, one of the best I have witnessed around Augusta National, launched him into the final group alongside Patrick Reed and it seemed momentum was with McIlroy, and only Captain America stood in his way.
“That Sunday was a strange day,” admitted McIlroy. “I didn’t have a great warm-up on the range. Then I was missing everything left on the range that day, and then my first tee shot on the 1st hole on Sunday, missed the fairway right on 1 by 40 yards.
“Even though the way I was feeling, I got off to a decent start. I should have eagled 2 missed a short one. I was always just a little uncomfortable that day. Some days you wake up like that, but I think I could have done a better job mentally of just sort of positioning my way around the golf course even though I didn’t have my best stuff.
“I felt like I was three behind going into the last day, so I felt like I needed my best stuff to win. Whenever you feel like you don’t have it, I probably forced the issue a little too much when I didn’t really need to. I think, again, going back to you don’t have to do spectacular things here. You just have to be solid and play your game and execute your shots and stay out of trouble and avoid the big numbers. If you do that, you’ll always hang around and have a chance at some point.”
Since 2018, McIlroy has never got firing at Augusta. He embarked on swing changes and went down rabbit holes and lost some of his natural flair. However, it’s a flair he seems to be slowly getting back with two wins on his PGA Tour record last year. Forget about a missed cut last week in Texas. That afforded McIlroy an extra two days worth of practice and if he can win the battle between his ears, there’s no reason why McIlroy can’t summon said flair and make his mark at long last at Augusta National this week.
“I think I was getting a little too caught up in technical thoughts about my golf swing and playing golf swing rather than playing golf,” he said. “I think when you get so tied up in technical thoughts, you don’t visualise as well, you don’t see the shot you want to hit. You don’t try to shape shots as much and you need that feel around Augusta.
“Patience, discipline, don’t make big numbers. For me, anyway, it feels like a very negative way to think, but it’s the way to play around this place. You don’t have to do anything spectacular.
“I played with D.J. in the first two rounds when he won here in 2020. I think he was 12-under after two days, and I got off the golf course thinking I don’t really feel like he — 12-under is a hell of a score after two days here, but I wasn’t in awe of the way he played. It’s just he did the right things and he put it in the right spots, and he held a few putts and he took advantage of the par-5s, and he basically did everything that this golf course asks of you.
“That’s what this place is all about. It’s as much of a chess game as anything else, and it’s just about putting yourself in the right positions and being disciplined and being patient and knowing that pars are good, and even if you make a couple of pars on the par-5s, that’s okay, and you just keep moving forward.”
McIlroy will be joined by Shane Lowry and Padraig Harrington for the Par-3 competition on Wednesday and will have a special guest by his side – his daughter Poppy on the bag for the first time at the Masters curtain-raiser – something that should put McIlroy in the right frame of mind ahead of his latest grand slam bid:
“It’s funny. When you don’t have children, the Par-3 seems like a bit of an afterthought, and then once kids arrive, it sort of becomes the highlight of the week in a way. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to it. It will be fun to get out there tomorrow and watch her run around.
“But it’s exciting. It’s exciting to be back here. It’s exciting to be here with my family and looking forward to everything in the week ahead.
“I’ve always said time is on my side, and I’ll keep saying that until it isn’t, whenever that is. But right now, I still feel like time’s on my side. I’m 32 years old with a ton of experience. So, I still feel young. I’m only a few years older than those guys. I’ve got a few more grey hairs than I used to, but I’m still young at heart!”