What if Rory McIlroy never does win the Masters?
It was an invigorating moment—Saturday evening, dusk, with Rory McIlroy hot on Patrick Reed’s heels after a blistering third-round 65 that culminated with a long birdie on 18. They put him in front of the camera with CBS’ Amanda Balionis, and he used the opportunity to deliver a message:
“Really excited to go out there tomorrow, show everyone what I’ve got, show Patrick Reed what I’ve got. All the pressure’s on him tomorrow. He’s got a lot of support here, and I’m hoping to come in and spoil the party.”
If it was possible to more excited by the prospect of a Reed-McIlroy final round at Augusta National, this did the trick—the man hunting for a career Grand Slam essentially calling out his main rival and putting the weight of the world on his shoulders. In that moment, even having witnessed Reed’s toughness firsthand, I knew Rory would win. He had the look of raw, inevitable destiny, and the writer in me was already dreaming up lines to describe the wildfire that was about to sweep across the lush fairways of Augusta National, consuming everything in its path. It even had a delicious element of revenge built-in: Yes, Reed took him down in their 2016 Ryder Cup match, but he was about to find out how it feels to face history as a solitary figure, with a very different version of Rory at his back. The Ryder Cup is one thing, but this was quite another. And the gift of charismatic geniuses such as Rory is that when they switch on the emotional magnets, you can’t help but march in lockstep, convinced you’re speeding along in the currents of fate.
Of course, almost everything about that quote turned out to be dreadfully—almost comically—wrong. Even the minor parts—it was actually Rory who had the bulk of the crowd’s support. On Sunday, he shot a 74, which was a superior score to exactly three golfers of the 53 who played. It had to be one of the two most disappointing rounds of his professional life, a close rival to the famous Sunday 80 that spoiled his 54-hole lead in the 2011 Masters. And it was Reed who stood up to the overwhelming pressure of the moment, accomplishing an act of survival with his “B-game” that was perhaps more impressive, and more heroic, than anything he could have mustered with his best.
With hindsight, that McIlroy quote from Saturday has been stripped of its disguise. What appeared like a confident challenge to Reed now seems more like a desperate attempt to convince himself. To make the private case, in a public fashion, that this thing he had coveted for so long didn’t mean too much to him. That he wouldn’t be drowned in the moment, a victim of wanting something a little too much for his own good, and that in 24 hours the Masters wouldn’t take on the appearance of a tantalizing chimera—a tournament that continued to elude his grasp, and make tangible the awful young man’s fantasy that he confessed to his parents, in tears, in the aftermath of 2011 … that he had blown his perfect chance, and would never summit the sport’s loftiest peak.
But here we are. And in the green jacket, Rory McIlroy has found his white whale.
The story of Ahab is familiar even to those who haven’t read Moby Dick. He’s the whaling captain who became obsessed with killing the leviathan who cost him his leg, and who pursued his mission with a fatal fanaticism—literally. His zealous hunt for revenge leads to his own death, and the death of almost his entire crew. Many of us were introduced to the word “monomania” in high school because of Ahab, and even for those who never cracked the cover, the character’s doomed chase provides a perfect metaphor for the theme of human obsession.
Rory is not Ahab. We’re not there yet. But then again, it’s not meant to be a perfect parallel. It’s meant to describe what just became the game’s most fascinating story—Rory, already one of the greatest golfers ever, deprived of the thing that he wants the most.
There have been some terrific white whale examples in golf, where one player has captured three legs of the grand slam and been cruelly deprived of the fourth. The most famous of our current era, of course, is Phil Mickelson, who has finished runner-up at the U.S. Open an astounding six times without ever winning the thing. Before him, there was Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer at the PGA Championship, and Sam Snead at the U.S. Open. But it’s never happened quite the same way at the Masters. There are players who have won all three of the other majors, but there is always a decent excuse why they couldn’t crack Augusta. Jim Barnes never played. Tommy Armour and Walter Hagen were too old to play in their prime. Lee Trevino boycotted the tournament for a handful of his prime years.
By virtue of excellent branding, the Masters has become the most prestigious of the major tournaments, despite being the youngest. (At least in America—in Europe, the Open Championship eclipses Augusta in some hearts.) Today, Rory finds himself in the unique position of being the only golfer in memory who has competed every eligible year of his career, won the other three majors, and yet never captured the green jacket.
The narrative after the Sunday 80 in 2011 has always been positive—it taught him a lesson about the pressure of winning a major, and he’s frequently called it one of the most important days of his career. And that narrative is true—mere months later, he won his first major at Congressional, and he’s gone on to forge a career that is the envy of almost every contemporary.
And yet, and yet, and yet …
The longer he goes without winning the Masters, the more a second, parallel interpretation of that 2011 loss becomes valid. The one that validates his fear, and that asks the ugly question: Was that, actually, the best chance he’ll ever get? Does he care too much now, and does his Sunday performance this year illuminate the trajectory of the decade and change to come? Is it the one thing, for this tough, brilliant, likable champion, that looms a little too large?
There is absolutely no answer to this question, and anyone who pretends otherwise is selling snake oil. But golf has a new most fascinating saga, and it’s ancient, and it’s quintessential: The single-minded pursuit by a lonely man of the prize that the gods, or nature, or blind luck has contrived to deny him. Rory, meet your white whale.