Rory McIlroy at the Masters. This is the year. But for what, exactly?
The Irishman has done it all around the playground of Augusta National Golf Club. Brilliant tee-to-green, woeful putting. Been there. Three great rounds, one absolute shocker to play himself out of the tournament. Done that. Epic final round collapse. Got the over-priced t-shirt from the clubhouse shop.
But the past is the past, don’t you know, and if the man himself is to be believed, he has made the journey to Georgia this week with a new club in his bag: perspective.
“There’s a difference between a personal desire and a need,” he said when asked recently about his desire to win the Masters. “I would have said a couple of years ago, ‘I need a green jacket.’ Where now it’s: ‘I want to. I want win it. I’d love to win it. But if I don’t, I’m OK.’ And I think that is the difference.”
McIlroy has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the more insightful and honest players in modern golf (let’s face it, it’s not exactly a high bar) but are we really expected to believe this? As you have already read 2,065 times already this week, the club of players who have won all four major championships is tiny and reserved for legends. Famously, only Nicklaus, Woods, Sarazan, Hogan and Player are members. Meanwhile, Trevino, Palmer, Watson, Snead and Mickelson are not.
The point is this is rarefied air. It is history. It is having your name mentioned in hushed tones for the rest of golfing history. Put in a more personal context, it is hard to disagree with the commentator who argued over the weekend that a McIlroy victory on Sunday would be the greatest achievement in Irish sporting history. No bad for a mop-top Holywood kid, son of Gerry and Rosie McIlroy.
The long and short of it is that no-one with any sense can genuinely think that deep down Rory believes what he is saying. Far more likely is that he is deploying a psychologist’s trick rolled out countless time over the years, the notion that an athlete can fool himself into thinking that a goal he considers to be the most important thing in his sporting life is somehow not that important then his chances of attaining that goal will improve.
This year’s Masters will be the Irishman’s fifth attempt at completing the career slam, adding to the 2011 Master, two PGA championships and the Claret Jug he won at Hoylake in 2014. Contrary to popular misconception, he has made a decent fist of the first four attempts, finishing inside the top ten on every occasion. No-one has a more consistent record over the same time span, except of course Danny Willett and Patrick Reed can call themselves Masters champions. Nobody ever remembers who finishes second at Augusta, never mind T7.
Last year he was in the final group with Reed, two shots adrift and making all kinds of uncharacteristically cocky pre-round pronouncements (“All the pressure is on him…”) only to step on the first tee and hit his drive 40 yards right. A helpful tree saved him the ignominy of out-of-bounds. Twenty minutes and a missed four-feet eagle putt on the second and the hope drained away.
Afterwards, he identified a poor pre-round warm-up and a flaw in his swing. In 2016, he was trending nicely after two days only to be blown away by his playing partner Jordan Spieth on a cold and breezy Saturday. The problem that day was a lack of concentration and fortitude, a failure to remember that patience and willingness to confront adversity are crucial components of any major championship. Dodgy putting, too, is always a recurring theme of any McIlroy Masters post mortem.
Another trope of modern sports psychology is look at these failures as anything but failures, more that they are precursors for success. View them as the necessary steps to be taken on the path to the summit. But it must be hard for McIlroy, who is heading towards 30 and will be keenly aware of the depth of talent coming through at an ever younger age. Before too long he won’t be worrying about Sergio and Justin Rose, it’ll be Matthew Wolff and Cameron Champ. The game is getting bigger, longer, stronger. Just sayin’, as the kids point out.
It is hard, too, for McIlroy’s vast army of fans.
They know winning golf tournaments is tough but they see his untouchable talent. They look at the joy and the freedom with which he plays when at his best. They bathe in his charisma. They look at the man and they look at the glorious green stage that is Augusta National Golf Club and they say, “Come on Rory, stop faffing around. Less of the psychological tricks. We don’t want to hear about the swing flaw or the greens. You are the best. A history man. Now is time to just do it.”
Just do it. Sounds like a marketing slogan ready to happen. More to the point, sounds like the only advice Rory McIlroy needs for the week ahead.