Nine years on it’s still hard to think of McIlroy and that Sunday. Here’s how things could finally be different for the 31-year-old
These are Rory McIlroy’s finishes at Augusta National – 20-MC-15-40-25-8-4-10-7-5-21. On the face of it everything looks hugely encouraging, behind the figures though there’s all that heartache and relative misery. Who would have thought that this would be the major that still eluded him at the age of 31 and the one needed to tick off the career Grand Slam.
That 15th place in 2011, along with Greg Norman’s Sunday train wreck 15 years earlier, might still be the biggest disappointment in modern-day Masters’ history as the youngster went from the champion-in-waiting to locating some property that none of us even knew about at the 10th, to near tears on the 13th tee.
A few weeks later he danced his way to the US Open and we all thought that his mental demons had been banished but they’ll pop up every year in April at the one he wants the most. Part of this is hyperbole, part of it is based on McIlroy’s own refreshing honesty. He’s admitted that in 2011 he choked and that he regularly gets too hyped before Augusta.
He wants it too much and we all get to see it play out every year - generally he’ll start slowly and improve as the week goes on though, like nine years ago, he’s been in the final group since when he teed it up with Patrick Reed in 2018. Then he hit one of the most wayward opening tee shots which was a precursor to a miserable 74 when the field averaged 70.5 - only four players posted higher scores. Incredibly he’s still waiting for his first top 3 at Augusta National.
A year ago he came into the tournament as the favourite having won The Players which was part of seven consecutive top-10 finishes. There was talk pre-Sawgrass that he had lost the art of finishing things off – he was 0-9 playing from the final group – but then he came through from the penultimate pairing and his supposed Sunday wobbles were over. He opened with a 73 and was never a factor in the week that Tiger chalked up his fifth Green Jacket with his first major win in 11 years, incredibly we are now over six since Rory prevailed at Valhalla.
Most of us like to reassure ourselves about the maestro ahead of Augusta and we’ll tell ourselves that everything’s going to be alright this time around. This year we’re looking at a November Masters and we’re telling ourselves that no patrons, the new date (he tends to play better later in the year) and even more emphasis on distance and a more low-key Masters will be putty in McIlroy’s hands. But the pressure will still be as intensified as ever - at his US Open pre-championship press conference he was asked about Augusta and at the recent Zozo Championship 11 of the 16 questions that he took in his pre-tournament zoom chat are about the Masters.
One nice tidbit was that he’ll also be thinking about his wedges rather than just the need to ‘hit bombs’ which is welcome distraction to everyone’s fascination with Bryson DeChambeau.
“You need all aspects of your game in good shape, especially your short game. One of the conversations I remember having with Phil Mickelson back in the day was he always tried to get his short game so good at Augusta. Then he could be ultra-aggressive with the second shots knowing he had a short game to bail him out if he did miss on the wrong side. So you try to get your short game really sharp and get everything else following that.”
Before lockdown he was the hottest player on the planet; from his last 11 starts he had two wins and eight other top 10s to sit back on top of the world rankings. Since June there’s been nothing overly worrying but, in comparison, there have only been two top 10s.
Then again he’s still been the most backed player with Betfair, both in terms of volume of money and total bets. All of which is likely part common sense and part romanticism – with Tiger prevailing in 2019 McIlroy would now comfortably be the fanciful choice for most of us.
Last year McIlroy spoke of how comfortable he now felt about being on the course as well as the surroundings with the staff and members. He’s enjoyed a couple of father-son visits where they’ve stayed in the cabins and done the dinners at night which include a trip to the wine cellar to choose what you’ll be drinking that night.
“There are the cool things about Augusta that a lot of people don’t see. I’ve always said my favourite times at Augusta have been away from Masters week and I would say there’s a lot of people that feel the same way. The Masters means so much. Obviously it's the last major for me to win but putting that aside, it is such a special place, so many great memories already. Any time you get to play at Augusta is a lot of fun.”
The next time we see McIlroy it will be as he goes about his practice rounds as he answers the same questions that he’s faced for the past decade. But this time it is different and, hopefully, there will be a different outcome.
"November is going to be different, very cold, the course could play very long. It plays long already but it can play very long. The greens may not be as fast as in April, depending on the moisture. It's going to be a different Masters this year but personally, maybe selfishly, that's what I need to get the jacket."