Rory McIlroy is the best player in the world when the pressure is off. It frustrates me greatly that his super Sunday 64 meant nothing in the destiny of the Green Jacket.
This year’s Masters was the first year I managed to talk myself out of lumping a few quid on Rory as I just didn’t see him winning this. Yet when he eagled the 13th I became more emotionally invested than ever before and started running all the ‘what if’ scenarios in my head.
In my mind, the grand slam was still on as I plotted the downfall of Scottie Scheffler.
I think the Masters is the one tournament where the patrons and television viewers almost wish a back-nine collapse on the runaway leader just for how synonymous meltdowns have become with the tournament. It was never going to happen to Scheffler and in truth, Rory never put enough pressure on him in the end.
Scheffler probably won’t go down as the most memorable champion. After all, the pre-tournament chatter was about Tiger Woods and the whole four rounds revolved around the 15-time Major winner until Rory decided to step up and steal the show from them both.
It was the Rory McIlroy I fell in love with growing up as a kid; the swashbuckling go for broke bouncy golfer who had swagger and no fear. It was a round that had everything, chip-ins, birdies, eagles, and of course, that holed bunker shot on 18 was a moment he deserved. It was fearless golf, for the most part.
While I absolutely loved McIlroy’s Sunday 64, and I think we all believed for a few minutes that maybe, just maybe, the grand slam was on, upon reflection, it just shows how frustrating Rory McIlroy is to watch as a Rory McIlroy fan.
My hopes for Rory had already begun to dwindle after a late stumble turned a first-round 70/71 into a 73. It wasn’t a 74, he hadn’t completely shot himself out of it on Thursday, but it was another sluggish start nonetheless. It had to be a 71 minimum.
By Saturday evening it was all over for another year and I wondered where Rory went from here. His Sunday surge was enjoyable to watch and it gives me hope for the remainder of the season but this was nothing new, this was Rory reversing into a top-10, just in more dramatic circumstances.
The first 13 holes on Sunday were absolutely fabulous with the exception of a missed birdie putt on the par-5 2nd from a similar spot to where he missed a short eagle effort in 2018.
When the eagle landed on 13 to get within five, Rory had a legitimate chance to apply some pressure on Scheffler. Anything could happen, you can’t assume that Scheffler is going to coast home, and you have to put yourself in a position to capitalise. Rory didn’t.
In McIlroy’s last five holes, he hit no fairways and just one green in regulation. When he got within a sniff his swing deserted him, as it did in Dubai earlier this year – the 17th hole.
His misses were all left off the tee except for a poor iron shot into 16. It also evoked memories of last year’s US Open at Torrey Pines when Rory raced through the field on the front nine and actually held the lead with nine holes to play, only to tumble out of contention.
McIlroy would not have won the 2022 Masters but standing on the 14th tee he had an outside chance, a glimmer, a sniff, and he didn’t give it a go. He still has work to do.
He didn’t birdie the par-5 15th, he still has a problem putting himself in position off the tee on the scoring holes. He hit a poor shot into 16 and went from bunker to bunker on 18. He could have posted nine-under and I believe he felt like he had a chance on the 14th tee and his game let him down.
Old habits die hard.
He held the lead in 2011 and was in contention starting the final round in 2018, otherwise, his other top-10s at Augusta have come after shooting himself out of it on Thursday or when there has been a runaway winner.
Sunday’s second place is his best finish at Augusta, but did he really compete? No. I believe Rory needs to win one of the other three majors before he can win at Augusta. I think he needs to know he can get over the line again.
The challenge of completing the career grand slam is only going to get harder for Rory. He beat the entire field last week except for the latest breakout star who ascended to the top of the world in Tiger Woods fashion and won the Masters in just his third Masters start. There is no end to the conveyor belt of young talent.
Rory is an enigma and that’s why we love him and tear our hair out watching him. His openness and honesty in press conferences are both a blessing and a curse as he leaves himself open to backlash but I admire his honesty and I think he’s refreshing.
However, I didn’t like hearing that Sunday was the happiest he has ever been on a golf course. I take that with a pinch of salt. He hadn’t quite come down from an extraordinary high yet and he is always one to speak off the cuff. He’s won four major titles, and won Ryder Cups. I am sure when he looks back on that it wasn’t the happiest he has been on a golf course.
In fairness, I am more optimistic about his Masters chances than I have been for a few years. The first 13 holes show he can take Augusta apart on Sunday so perhaps he will take a more positive approach driving down Magnolia Lane in 12 months.
There is hope, but there is also much work to be done. It’s a start, but I am not getting carried away.