This year was the first year I didn’t financially invest in Rory McIlroy’s grand slam bid. Emotionally, however, I was in it until Scottie Scheffler eventually found the hole on the 72nd green.
I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t see Rory’s Sunday 64 coming. When the Sky Sports team attempted to hype an improbable McIlroy comeback before the final round, I nodded in approval as pundit Paul McGinley shut down the suggestion.
Even the most ardent McIlroy fan couldn’t have harboured hope. Not only was he trailing the lead by 10, but he was trailing the world’s number one player, with the final pairing made up of the two most in-form stars in the sport. Everything was stacked against McIlroy, and unchained from any semblance of realistic expectation, he played like a man with nothing to lose.
Of course, this is a criticism that’s been levelled at McIlroy for the best part of six years now; his killer instinct seemingly dissipating, the big occasion getting to his game before he even has the chance to impose it. In golf’s biggest tournaments, McIlroy’s starts have been slow. I’ve often wondered in recent years if his confidence is so low that he can’t bring himself to get into contention for fear of crumbling when he gets there. That somehow failing from the off is easier than falling at the final hurdle. McIlroy’s patented the backdoor top-10 in a Major, rarely managing to get into contention or even threaten to add to his four-major tally, the last of which arrived in 2014.
So, all that being said, what made Sunday at Augusta any different?
Well, the angel and the devil on my shoulders had me tossing and turning all night trying to figure that out. The cynic in me says it changes little. If it wasn’t for Scheffler four-putting the last, he would’ve beaten Rory into second by five instead of three. McIlroy admitted that he didn’t feel like he had a chance to win the tournament until his eagle landed on 13, and with that confession in mind, he proceeded to miss two crucial drives left on 14 and 15, with the latter pull surrendering his length advantage at a par-5 he had to birdie, at minimum. If McIlroy only felt the pressure from the 14th tee, then his swing abandoned him for the last five holes that he played in one-under courtesy of a miraculous birdie at the last.
But that’s the cynic in me. And he’s a miserable oul bollocks at the best of times. The optimistic McIlroy fan I’ve always been can appreciate that a man my age, and on a day when I recorded 44 putts in a friendly three-ball at Carton House, came out and fired his best ever score at the Masters, one shy of the course record, on a Sunday, and lit up a tournament otherwise lacking spark.
What makes this particular Sunday showing different though – and perhaps my reasoning is fickle, but hell, golf is fickle, so when in Rome and all that – is one shot. Just one shot differentiates McIlroy’s final round flurry to all the others, and that shot is of course his recovery from the trees left of 17 with his… I jest, it’s obviously the holed bunker shot on the last.
Rory McIlroy hits an OUTRAGEOUS bunker shot on the final hole! ? pic.twitter.com/yjwmPgSIRY
— Sky Sports Golf (@SkySportsGolf) April 10, 2022
In my mind, that one shot changes everything and if you’re shaking your head reading this, hear me out. If McIlroy failed to get up and down on the final hole and his challenge fizzled out with a 66, it would’ve read like the same old story, not just to me and many others, but to Rory too. By holing that bunker shot, and you can tell this by his reaction – so shocked that he pulled it off that he forgot how to celebrate – McIlroy, in that moment, still thought he had a chance to win the tournament, and in the heat of battle, pulled off a shot on arguably golf’s biggest stage that, in another life, might’ve got the job done.
You see, publicly, McIlroy has never lacked self-belief, and he’s often crucified for doing his job and engaging with media and talking up his game. And although he’s gone on the record multiple times in recent months adamantly declaring that his golf remains good enough to win the biggest prizes, I’m not convinced he actually believed it. His performances certainly didn’t suggest he did.
Sunday has to be the catalyst for change that McIlroy’s been relentlessly searching for: Swing alterations, coaching, meditation, mindfulness, Bob Rotella, books, juggling, McIlroy has dabbled with just about everything to find the missing piece of the jigsaw, a piece, I’m convinced, that fits perfectly between the six inches of his ears. In that box office moment on 18, I hope he found it. ‘It’ being hard evidence that he can be a Major force once more. Proof on his day, rare and all as they have become, that nobody can live with him.
Yes, he needs to find a way to take that mindset into Thursday and beyond but that wondrous bunker shot on the 72nd hole at Augusta might be the one that helps him crack the code at long last and recapture the belief to get him there. If it can’t, I’m not sure what will.
Before last week, I’d resigned myself to accepting McIlroy would never win another Major. After Sunday, I feel like Harry in the film Dumb and Dumber and McIlroy’s Lloyd Christmas after trading in the dog van for a scooter to get them the rest of the way to Aspen. “Just when I think you couldn’t possibly be any dumber you go and do something like this, and totally redeem yourself.”
In other words, I’m back in, Rory, all guns blazing for Major number 5. And I hope you finally are too.