Not since the infamous Greg Norman Saturday Slam of 1986 did a major championship season become solely about someone who didn’t end up lifting one of golf’s big four titles.
Rory McIlroy’s bunker shot on the 72nd hole appeared a rather innocuous golf shot, he had thrilled throughout that Sunday afternoon but ultimately it had looked to be in vein as he reversed his way into another top-10 finish.
But as that bunker shot trickled down the slope and eventually into the hole, this burden that had latched itself onto the shoulders of McIlroy for eleven years evaporated and a child like McIlroy erupted as if he had scored the winning goal at lunchtime in school.
It was a roar that reverberated around the towering pines of Augusta National and although Scottie Scheffler tried to make his trademark clinical victory memorable by comically four-putting the 72nd green, the 2022 Masters was all about Rory McIlroy.
In fact you could say that the highlight moment of the four major championships wasn’t produced by a champion.
That shot has appeared in highlight reels and 2023 Masters promos – even though Collin Morikawa did the same thing – over the last twelve months reinstating that McIlroy’s quest for a career grand slam, a fifth major and a first major in nine years is one of the most captivating storylines in sport.
In that moment of pure unadulterated joy and jubilation looks to have come a sliding doors moment for McIlroy who in an interview with Ewan Murray of the Guardian said last year was the first time he had left Augusta National with a smile on his face, despite yet another opportunity to win a green jacket going begging.
“It was the first year in a long time I came away from Augusta feeling really happy about the week,” he says. “Yes, I started too many shots behind on Sunday, but … when you get into scenarios like that, I didn’t know what Scottie was doing so there’s still that hope that something could happen.
“He played great and ended up winning, but walking up that hill and going to sign my card on a Sunday, the dominant emotion has been disappointment.
“That was the first year in a long time that I felt joy and happiness. I appreciated the moment and where I was rather than thinking about what I hadn’t done. It was almost like going through some sort of mental barrier. I wanted a 90-hole Masters rather than 72. I wanted another crack at it right away.
“I used that as a catalyst last year. My major performances were so much better than in the previous few years. The Masters was a springboard. I could have won all of them after that.”
Right you are Rory, he could have and probably should have won the Open Championship instead of finishing third in a two-horse race. But happy memories of the Masters last year will count for little if he doesn’t at least realistically compete for the title and join golf’s most exclusive club.
Augusta National has long been dubbed as the one course tailor-made for McIlroy. A high draw and towering iron shots seem the perfect formula to tackle the golfing haven in an otherwise mundane state of Georgia.
But like Georgia, the Holywood native’s Masters appearances have been stale and since ‘that’ day in 2011 he has only had one realistic chance of completing the career grand slam but that quickly went up in smoke in the final round in 2018 as Patrick Reed left him for dead.
Since then, McIlroy has tried every trick in the book in terms of preparation with the hype around his chances fizzling out in tandem.
Now, he will drive down Magnolia Lane with arguably his best chance. Scottie Scheffler is the man to beat and looks as good a bet as any to become the first defending champion to win since Tiger Woods since 2002. But outside of that, the contenders make for good reading for McIlroy fans.
Rahm has gone off the boil in recent weeks while other bookies favourites Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, Patrick Cantlay and Tony Finau will hardly strike fear into McIlroy. Even Cameron Smith and co have been floundering in their fleeting LIV appearances although Brooks Koepka has been bullish about his chances this week and looks on form at LIV’s Orlando event.
A wet and muggy week looks in store next week which will only suit McIlroy more it would seem given his length. However, the lengthening of some holes, particularly the par-5 13th will make for interesting viewing.
McIlroy looked on song with a new driver shaft and new putter at the Match Play but one of the most improved elements of his game over the last twelve months has been his wedge play.
That will be vital again. To wear out the most worn out phrase in golf: Augusta is a second shot golf course.
This is true and if McIlroy’s wedge game is in tune with the rest of his play, then he has a fantastic chance of winning. Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, Sergio Garcia, Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson, Adam Scott and Charl Schwartzel count for some of the most recent green jacket wearers.
All excellent with their wedges and shorter irons, while they aren’t the best putters you will ever see. McIlroy has been good from 100-125 yards this season ranking 18th in proximity to the hole while he was fifth last season from 125-150 yards although he is 187th in that category this term.
Inside 150 yards will determine what chance McIlroy has at finally breaking into golfing immortality and this year could be the best chance he has. The cards look like they are going to be stacked in his favour it’s a question if he can get the maximum out of the hand he is dealt.
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