AUGUSTA, Ga.— Rory McIlroy and the Masters. The relationship between the two is a lot like life. At times beautiful and harmonious, occasionally messy and frustrating, sometimes uncertain and confidence shaking.
As perfectly suited as the 29-year-old four-time major champion’s game would appear to be for Augusta National, with his booming right-to-left drives and towering irons, it is not perfect (see: McIlroy’s oft-criticized short game, be it his wedge play or putting).
Golf is, after all, a game of imperfect. There are few flat lies around Augusta National.
This week McIlroy will try (again) to become just the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam. You might have heard. He certainly has.
Over the course of McIlroy’s first 10 Masters, his strategy, thoughts and emotions have changed and evolved. Will he ever slip his arms into that elusive green jacket? A look at his past and present at Augusta National provides some insight.
2009: Shock and awe
The first time McIlory came to Augusta National was on a cold, wet and windy day in March a few weeks ahead of his first tournament appearance as a bushy-haired, slightly chubby 19-year old. “Once I started playing I was afraid to take a divot the first few holes,” he has said often since.
His first Masters? There was curiosity more than expectation — a top junior, his reputation had preceded him and this was his first major as a professional after having turned pro the year before.
McIlroy played a practice round early in the week with 2003 winner Mike Weir, a player whose game couldn’t be more different. “I didn't really ask him too many questions,” he said. “I was just putting to the tees he was putting to. He probably knows the greens pretty well.
The hole that scared McIlroy the most? The 12th. “Sometimes you've got to play away from the pins here and take a 30-footer and 2-putt and go to the next,” he said. “Par is a pretty good score around here.” Four pars for the week. Pretty good all right.
His favorite? The 13th. “I've got quite a high ball flight, so I can take it over the tree on the left,” he said then. “It gives me a bit of an advantage there.” It led to an eagle, a birdie and a tie for 20th.
2011: Reality bites
After missing the cut in 2010 — still McIlroy’s only weekend off in the event — Rory took a four-stroke lead into Sunday following rounds of 65-69-70. He appeared poised to match his idol Tiger Woods in winning a green jacket at the ripe old age of 21 after birdies on three of his final six holes on Saturday to lead for a third-straight day. His words that night would be foretelling, though, as he talked about missed opportunities the year before and needing to eliminate little mistakes and concentrate on picking good targets.
Paired the next day with two-time major champion Angel Cabrera, who’d won the Masters just two years earlier, and feeling out of sorts with the rhythm of the round, McIlroy went out in 37. Barely clinging to the lead, his tee shot on 10 went so far left it landed near Butler Cabin. McIlroy tripled the hole then four-putted 12 on his way to a final-round 80 and a tie for 15th.
“I'm very disappointed,” said McIlroy, who later broke down in tears talking to his mom later that night. “I was leading this golf tournament with nine holes to go, and I just unraveled.
“I think it's a Sunday at a major, what it can do. This is my first experience at it, and hopefully the next time I'm in this position I'll be able to handle it a little better.”
Two months later he won the U.S. Open at Congressional by eight strokes for his first career major championship.
McIlroy was just one stroke off the lead of Fred Couples and Jason Dufner after 36 holes. Then he shot 77 on Saturday, going out in 42 after two doubles, two bogeys and zero birdies through his first eight holes. The free fall continued a day later with a 76.
“I just couldn't hit any fairways,” the Ulsterman said of his third round. “When you can't hit fairways around here you make life a lot more difficult for yourself. I was hanging in there, made a really good up‑and‑down on 4, good up‑and‑down on 6, and just sort of trying to hang in. Making double on 7 and then another 6 on 8, that really knocked everything out of me and it was hard to get any momentum going after that.
“Seems like every year I come here I throw a bad nine holes out there.”
2013: A troubling pattern
After playing the first two rounds in two under, McIlroy entered the weekend four strokes back of leader Jason Day. But a third-round 79 that included a water ball triple-bogey 7 on 11 and another 7 on the par-5 15th after another water ball did him in.
A moment he never recovered from, it was an all-too-familiar refrain.
“It's disappointing, especially after such a good start,” he said. “I was only a few off the lead going into the seventh hole today and then all of a sudden I play 7 through 11 in five-over par and basically my chances in the tournament are gone.”
2014: Humbled by a local
McIlroy opened with a respectable 71 to sit just three strokes off the lead. A day later, he imploded again, shooting a 77 that included a pair of double bogeys with one of them coming on 10 (not again!).
A day later, playing first off with a non-competitive marker, Jeff Knox, the Augusta National member beat McIlroy’s third-round score by a shot, 70 to 71. The Northern Irishman finished up the week tying for eighth.
“I don't know what it is,” McIlroy said of his ill-fated second round. “I seem to throw in a high number every year. Last year it was a 79, this year it was a 77. At least it's getting a little better. It's just [about] turning those 77s and the high ones into 72s or 73s, that's the real key for me around here.”
2015: History beckons
Now a four-time major champion after victories at the 2011 U.S. Open, 2012 PGA Championship and 2014 Open Championship and PGA, expectations were sky high for McIlroy, now the No. 1 player in the world, entering the 2015 Masters as he got his first crack at trying to join the short list of players to have won the career Grand Slam.
The 5-foot-9 McIlroy had also transformed himself physically in recent years, dropping his body fat from 24 percent to 10 percent, gaining 20 pounds of muscle and posing for the cover of Men’s Health magazine. The New York Times Magazine deemed his swing the best in golf.
Still, McIlroy tried to block out the enormity of the expectation.
What had he learned to that point?
That he had to try to be a little bit more aggressive and not think just about where not to hit it. “You come here to Augusta National, it's such an intimidating place the first time that you get here,” he said. “I felt like I may have shown it a little bit too much respect at times.”
McIlroy played the par 5s in 14 under for the week but a slow start with a pair of 71s the first two days left him chasing Jordan Spieth, who opened 64-66 and blitzed the field, finishing at 18 under and four strokes clear of his nearest competitors, Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose. McIlroy finished in fourth alone at 12 under.
Unlike past years, McIlroy did not visit Augusta National early, noting that he plays his best when he is relaxed and not overdoing or overthinking his preparation.
“I'm trying not to hit so many shots off tees into greens, around the greens,” he says. “I think there's a balance to that. You can obviously relax too much, but then on the flip side, you can consume yourself with it, which I don't think's a good idea, either.”
Again, McIlroy entered the weekend in contention, just a shot off the lead of Jordan Spieth. Playing alongside the Texan, McIlroy stumbles, though, shooting 77.
He left Augusta National frustrated and thinking his history of struggles have far more to do with his mind than anything in his game. The weight of it seems to be taking its toll, too.
“I feel like I'm a good enough player,” he said. “I feel like I've got everything I need to become a Masters champion. But I think each and every year that passes that I don't, it will become increasingly more difficult.”
At Bay Hill, I spoke to McIlroy a few weeks prior to the 2017 Masters and ask the first thought that comes to mind when he hears the words “The Masters.” His response is telling. “Stressful,” he said. “I am, ask anyone who knows me, a complete prick in the week leading up to Augusta. But they understand and know that. It’s a stressful situation.”
He opened 72-73 but made an early move Saturday with birdies on two of his first three holes. But McIlroy bogeyed the fifth after coming up well short of the flag and three-jacking, then doubles the seventh after getting too cute with a bunker shot and three-yoking again. The charge never materializes as he shoots 71.
“There's times on this course where you take your medicine and try to just walk away with a par,” he said later. “I sort of got the balance right today, but I didn't take my opportunities when I could have.”
McIlroy ties for seventh six strokes back.
2018: Fake it till you make it
After a third-round 65 to match the day’s best score, McIlroy was three off the lead and paired in the final group with Patrick Reed. On Saturday night, the Northern Irishman sounded like he’d been trying to talk himself into victory by saying that he’d been waiting for this chance and he doesn’t have as much pressure on himself because he’s not the one in the lead.
McIlroy’s opening tee shot sailed right and into the trees, miraculously saved par, but goes on to shoot 74, never threatening Reed again before tying for fifth.
“Of course it's frustrating,” he said. “It's hard to take any positives from it right now, but at least I put myself in the position. That's all I wanted to do. The last four years I've had top‑10s, but I haven't been close enough to the lead. Today I got myself there. I didn't quite do enough. But, you know, come back again next year and try.
“I'll sit down and reflect over the next few days and see what I could have potentially done better. More whether it be mindset or I just didn't quite have it today.”
McIlroy arrives at Augusta National a month removed from a victory at the Players Championship, an important one as much for it being his first win in 364 days and just second in the last 30 months as for how he achieved it. On a cold, breezy, sunless afternoon at TPC Sawgrass, McIlroy grinded this one out.
He also notes that golf doesn’t define him. Who he is as a person is one thing. His golf is another. Part of his process now involves meditation and juggling. Regular chats with Brad Faxon, one of the game’s best putters, are also among his routine.
“Will winning the Masters make the people who are important to me think any differently of me?” he says during a recent chat. “Hopefully not. I have to keep that in perspective. It won’t define me to the people who know me best. It might define me to the wider public if I were never to win it. It might make me a less accomplished golfer, but it won’t make me less of a person. I feel like I'm much more than my career.”
As for that career here at the Masters and that elusive green jacket?
“I put too much into the chase of it,” he says when asked what he learned from last year. “I wasn't patient enough. I realized after the second hole — I would've taken 1 under thru two but I was walking up to the third hole pressing.
“It’s been a learning experience. One of the worst days of my carer led to one of my best [in 2011]. I'm getting there.”
Perhaps this is the year he does.