Time travel still isn’t a thing, unfortunately. Still, it’s worth – briefly – retracing our steps back to April of 2009 which, in Rory McIlroy’s world, was the first time he turned off Washington Road and made the 330-yard drive along Magnolia Lane into Augusta National Golf Club for what would be his debut Masters appearance.
Back then his physical appearance was dominated by a mop of curly hair and McIlroy joked about not having seen his barber for a while. He was just 19 and the oldest of three teenagers in the field that year, with Ryo Ishikawa and Danny Lee sharing some of the billing as this new generation of wunderkind set out to take the sport by storm.
But even then McIlroy was the standout. That week Ishikawa and Lee missed the cut and McIlroy marked his first appearance in the championship by finishing tied-20th alongside Justin Rose in a tournament won in a playoff by Angel Cabrera, who will be listening out for word of this latest champion from the confines of an Argentinian jail.
On the Monday of that Masters week McIlroy had forgotten he was due to attend a press conference in the old media centre and, on realising his error, rushed his practice round so that he could make it. There was a lovely carefree demeanour about him. “I’m here to enjoy myself, hopefully pick up some valuable experience. If it doesn’t quite work out I’ll hopefully have plenty more to try and do well in,” he said.
It’s hard to believe but even then – before he had played at all in the Masters or won any of the four Major championships – McIlroy found himself part of the conversation about winning the Grand Slam, of when rather than if he would join that exclusive club where only those who had won the Masters, US Open, US PGA and The Open belonged. He can blame Gary Player. The Black Knight had referenced how he had won his Slam at 29, how Jack Nicklaus first did it at 26 and Tiger Woods at 24.
Player wasn’t then or now known for being a quiet soul or of keeping his mouth shut. He had thrown it out into the ether that McIlroy was good enough to join the exclusive club, going so far as to nominate a timescale and predicting he would manage it by the age of 22. “I don’t know, I’d have to play extremely well,” responded the teenager when informed of Player’s observation. “Obviously it’s not out of the realm of possibility. But there are so many great players out here now and the depth of the fields are so strong that it is very difficult to win a Major, let along a PGA Tour event.”
McIlroy’s caution, as we’ve discovered, was merited.
Fast-forward 14 years from those words and again the Grand Slam and McIlroy are intricately linked. Yet it remains as elusive as ever. The difference is that McIlroy – no longer with that wild mop of curls – is genuinely in pursuit of that Grand Slam, it being the only missing piece in the puzzle. He has two Wanamaker Trophies, one Claret Jug and one US Open trophy. The green jacket is not yet a part of his collection. Not yet.
It hasn’t been for the want of trying, of course. McIlroy finished runner-up behind Scottie Scheffler a year ago and, if that statistically is his best result, the fact of the matter is that his best chance to win was the 2011 edition when, as a 21-year-old still chasing a breakthrough Major success, he took a four strokes lead into the final round only to unravel as he went wandering amidst the cabins located to the left of the 10th tee and played pinball with the trees in navigating an escape route.
In demonstrating maturity beyond his years McIlroy’s immediate postmortem after that fall from grace came with the words of honesty as he addressed his own failings: “I’ve got to take the positives and the positives were I led this golf tournament for 63 holes. I’ll have plenty more chances. I know that. It’s very disappointing when happened today. Hopefully it’ll build a little bit of character in me as well.”
Of the fallout itself, he added at the time: “I can’t really put my finger on it. I lost a lot of confidence in my putting around the turn. I didn’t really get anything going and was second-guessing lines and second-guessing my speed and on these greens you can’t do that.
“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. I didn’t handle it particularly well today obviously but it was a character-building day, put it that way. I’ll come out stronger for it.”
That character was to be evident within months when McIlroy’s response – having spent some time beforehand in Haiti as part of his role as an ambassador for Unicef, which provided real perspective – was to run away with the US Open at Congressional for his first Major title. Others followed. The PGA in 2012. The Open in 2014. The PGA again in 2014. And after that nothing. Four is a Hall of Fame career but for McIlroy it is a total that is below his own expectations.
That the Masters has proven to be the missing link is a mystery of the ages. In theory it is the one Major that should suit him most of all: indeed in 14 career visits to the tournament at Augusta National the Northern Irishman has missed only two cuts and has numbered four top-5s among seven top-10s.
McIlroy’s obsession with the Masters came from a young age when he’d be allowed watch the tournament on television with his father Gerry and mother Rosie. “The first one I can remember is when [Nick] Faldo beat [Greg] Norman in ‘96 [aged six]. Then ‘97, I could probably tell you ever shot that Tiger [Woods] hit. ‘97 is probably the one that stands out most,” he recalled.
The past is the past, but it is still worth noting how well McIlroy has generally played when walking between the ropes in the Masters: his best score in the first round remains the 65 he opened with in 2011; his best score in the second round was the 66 in 2020; his best score in the third round was a 65 in 2018; while his best closing round (and best score of all) was the 64 he finished with in claiming the runner-up spot behind Scheffler last year.
McIlroy was like his young self on completing his final round, of getting into contention after matching nines of 32 – an eagle and six birdies and no bogeys – and knowing that the course was indeed made for him. “It’s what you dream about, right? You dream about getting yourself in position. I wasn’t quite close enough to the lead (of Scheffler) but to play as well as I did and then to finish like this, it’s just absolutely incredible. This tournament never ceases to amaze me. That’s as happy as I’ve ever been on a golf course right there, just having a chance. I gave it a great go, my best ever score at Augusta, my best finish ever...I’ll come back next year and keep trying.”
That year has come at speed, the arrival of LIV doing its thing to rock men’s professional golf and McIlroy too often distracted it seemed at times by playing the role of PGA Tour advocator. But he has more recently regained his own perspective, and two reconnaissance visits to Bobby Jones’ masterpiece – the most recent just last Thursday – have helped his preparations.
Maybe the final piece of the Grand Slam jigsaw will slip into place this year? It won’t be, as he has put it, for the want of trying.