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Rory McIlroy cites Masters disappointment, burnout as reasons for missing Hilton Head

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Mike Mulholland

May 02, 2023

CHARLOTTE — When Rory McIlroy shot five under on the back nine in Wednesday's practice round at Augusta National in April, he allowed himself a thought that he knew he should never have: This is going to be my best Masters ever.

For a player who has registered seven top-10s at the Augusta National, including one solo second, it's not hard to interpret what that means. For at least a moment, he thought he was going to win the green jacket and the career slam.

"Me thinking that way isn't a good thing," he said Tuesday night at an event in Charlotte. "All I should be thinking about is that first shot on Thursday … you need to stay in the present moment and stand, and I feel like at Augusta I didn't quite do a good job of that because of how well I came in playing. … I maybe got ahead of myself a little bit."

This week's Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow is McIlroy’s first tournament since the Masters, and it was inevitable that he would face questions about skipping the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head the week after Augusta—the second designated event he missed, reportedly incurring a $3 million fine in the process. After a miniature golf competition against NASCAR Denny Hamlin at a promotional event for FedEx in a downtown bar, he stood in a scrum of reporters and answered questions gamely for 13 minutes, unhurried and responding with his usual thoughtfulness.

"I think just after the disappointment of Augusta, it was just like, look, I need to reassess where I am in my life and what's important to me, and what I really need to focus my energy on," he said. "It was just incredibly disappointing. I needed some time to regroup."

It wasn't just Augusta. The last year and change has been a whirlwind for McIlroy, complete with a heartbreaking loss at St. Andrews in the Open Championship, a third FedEx Cup win, and a seemingly full-time position as the unofficial spokesperson/defender for the PGA Tour in its ongoing conflict with LIV Golf. In the meantime, along with Tiger Woods and other players, he helped remake the entire structure of the tour. Throughout the past year, he was running on adrenaline, but the strain finally caught up to him, cresting at the one place where he longed for success the most—Augusta.

"It's been a big 12 months and I don't know if I fully reflected on stuff," he said Tuesday. "I never really got a chance to really think about the Open and St. Andrews and everything that went on there. … It was nice to have three weeks to just put all that stuff in the rearview mirror and just try to focus on what's ahead."

"My mind wouldn't have been there," he added, of the Heritage.

Instead, he embarked on a process that he described as "reassessing everything," especially the spot golf occupies in his life. He felt it totally consumed him for the past year, and while he concedes that that needed to happen, he couldn't help but lament the lost time.

"That's sort of what I'm looking forward to," he said. "Maybe not putting so much into it and understanding that there's other parts of my life that are important as well."

In the interval, he put his clubs away for two weeks, celebrated his anniversary with his wife Erica in Manhattan, and only started to practice again last Monday. As he recounted his last month, he emphasized what exactly had burned him out.

"I wasn't gassed because of the golf," he said. "I was gassed because of everything that we've had to deal with in the golf world over the past 12 months and being right in the middle of it and being in that decision-making process. The golf's the easy part."

He now feels he's in place to step back a little from that aspect of tour life—the wheels have been set in motion and he'll continue to serve on the policy board, but otherwise he plans to divide his focus solely between competitive golf and his family life.

"I've always thought I've had a good handle on the perspective of things and where golf fits within my life," he said, "but I think over the last 12 months I'd lost sight of that, lost sight of the fact that there's more to life than the golf world and this silly little squabble that's going on between tours. And I think once I disconnected from it a little bit, I could see things a little clearer, and where everything fits. I guess that was a good reset."

McIlroy also seemed to suggest that perhaps the alleged $3 million fine wasn't quite set in stone, saying, "I had my reasons not to play Hilton Head. I expressed those to [PGA Tour commissioner Jay [Monahan], and whether he thinks that is enough to warrant … look, again, I understood the consequences of that decision before I made it. So whatever happens, happens."

Whether three weeks was enough time to completely shake off the stress of the last year remains to be seen, and McIlroy looked at his most wistful when a reporter asked him if he'd like to go back to the 2011 U.S. Open, which he had previously described as the most carefree he's ever been in a major tournament.

"Oh, 100 perent," he said. "If I had half the naïveté I had back then, I'd love that. But you know, as you go on in life, scar tissue builds up, cynicism builds up, skepticism builds up. So it's trying to take all that off. But I think everyone would love to have that exuberance of youth they had in their early twenties."

On a practical level, he lamented the "stupid decision" to switch to a new putter in March, and felt that he had let what he called his best putting year ever slip away because of two or three mediocre weeks on the greens. Nevertheless, the message he wanted most to convey was that he was rejuvenated, and excited to play on a familiar course where he's won three times before, including in 2021. This is a new Rory, or at least that's the image being presented. It's a narrative he very much wants to believe in, and one that could usher in a new era of success.

If only it's true.