It’s not quite Groundhog Day but it’s that time of year when the hype around Rory McIlroy’s Grand Slam quest reaches fever pitch, with the Northern Irishman still knocking on the door of the most exclusive club in golf.
Major-less since 2014, it’s a milestone that’s always been within his reach but without tempting fate, the 2023 renewal might just be the mercurial McIlroy’s best chance yet.
In truth, Scottie Scheffler’s brilliance of last year resigned McIlroy to second place without ever really sniffing victory but it’s the manner of Rory’s Sunday 64 that must’ve rekindled his Masters belief.
Prior to holing that miraculous bunker shot on the 72nd hole at Augusta, McIlroy had been stuck in a cycle of uncertainty. Swing alterations, coaching changes, meditation, mindfulness, Bob Rotella, books, juggling… he’d dabbled with just about everything to find the missing piece of the jigsaw, a piece that many believe fits snugly between the six inches of his ears.
In that box office moment on 18 when his two hands soared to the heavens, there’s every chance McIlroy found it. ‘It’ being hard evidence that he can be a Major force once more. Proof on his day that his game is more than good enough to slip into a Green Jacket.
“I’ve always known that I can do it,” McIlroy said that Sunday after posting his lowest ever round, and best ever finish at Augusta.
“I’ve played good enough around here, maybe just haven’t strung four rounds together like that, but I’ve always known that I have the game to win at this place.
“It’s just a matter of having that game for four days in a row and not making big numbers and shooting yourself in the foot.
“I don’t think it is the right strategy to go for broke from the first day. I mean, obviously you can get on a run and shoot a good score, but you’re basically trying to just play yourself into the tournament.
“I don’t think I’ve ever walked away from this tournament as happy as I am today.
“I’ve played a really good round of golf, and it’s my best ever finish at Augusta. It’s not quite enough, but I’ll certainly look back on this day with very fond memories.”
McIlroy’s scintillating 64 certainly inspired a resurgence in 2022. The Claret Jug may have slipped through his grasp but that was as much down to Cam Smith’s brilliance as it was McIlroy’s cautious approach to the final round at St Andrews.
The 150th Open near-miss was another experience that should stand to McIlroy should he find himself under a Major spotlight once more and having collected both the Race to Dubai and FedEx Cup titles in the meantime, as well as staring down Patrick Reed in Dubai, a man responsible for crushing McIlroy’s Grand Slam hopes at Augusta in 2018, it’s no wonder the now 33-year old is feeling confident.
In fact, McIlroy believes he’s reached a level of play that’s never been more complete.
“I’ve won 30 whatever times around the world as a professional. There’s no reason that I can’t double that number going forward. I truly believe that,” McIlroy says.
“Who knows whenever you’ve peaked or not peaked. I’m guilty of looking back to 2014 and thinking about how I played then, and are there certain things from that time in my career I’d want to put into my own career at the minute.
“But when I look at everything and I look at the statistical categories, I don’t feel like I’ve ever been as complete of a player as I am right now.”
By holing that bunker shot last year, 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.
In this life, however, he has the likes of Scheffler and Jon Rahm, with whom McIlroy has been playing musical chairs atop the world rankings, to overcome if he’s to gain golfing immortality alongside Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.
At one time his place amongst them looked written in the stars, yet a spot in the annals of golf history must be earned, and McIlroy’s determined to get out of his own way in order to achieve it.
“I’ve always felt like I have the physical ability to win this tournament but it’s being in the right head space to let those physical abilities shine through,” he said on Tuesday.
“It’s been tentative starts, not putting my foot on the gas early enough. I’ve had a couple of bad nine holes that have sort of thrown me out of the tournament at times.
“I’ve got all the ingredients to make the pie. It’s just putting all those ingredients in and setting the oven to the right temperature and letting it all come to fruition. But I know that I’ve got everything there. It’s just a matter of putting it all together.”
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