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Once Rory McIlroy walked into Augusta as a free man but it has held him prisoner for years

Questions about Holywood man’s failure to win the Masters have acquired a working vocabulary over time

For the last 15 years Rory McIlroy has appeared in the media centre at Augusta for his Masters preview press conference, and after a while, he was like Red in The Shawshank Redemption turning up to his parole hearings. Once upon a time McIlroy walked into Augusta as a free man but it has held him prisoner for many years now. Every year a new parole hearing.

Questions about McIlroy’s failure to win the Masters have acquired a working vocabulary over time. Nobody in the press room wants to be hurtful or blunt, but everyone understands that the issue cannot be ignored. In his preview press conference 12 months ago McIlroy fielded 28 questions, four of which related to golf’s continuing civil war and one touched on his ongoing quest for a career Grand Slam.

Eight of the other questions, though, related in one way or another to his failure to win the Masters. The questions were peppered with triggering phrases such as “scar tissue” and “mental and emotional toll” or euphemisms such as “struggles” and “challenging”.

One question bundled them all together. “When you think about your struggles over the years do you categorise them as physical, mental or emotional struggles,” asked one reporter. “Physical” was thrown as a soft ball.


“I would say the majority are mental or emotional struggles rather than physical,” said McIlroy in response. “I’ve always felt like I have the physical ability to win this tournament. But it’s being in the right head space to let those physical abilities shine through.”

Once McIlroy introduced the concept of “head space” there were bound to be follow-up questions on that theme. “The best way for me to feel like I’m in a good head space is to be as prepared as I possibly can be, and I feel really prepared,” said McIlroy. “I think I’m pretty much there.”

A couple of days later he missed the cut for the second time in three years. Straddling the cut line he bogeyed two of the last three holes. It looked soft. Submissive. McIlroy signed for 77, equalling his third highest score in 54 competitive rounds at Augusta. His head space had been invaded again; ransacked again.

The thing about McIlroy and the Masters is that he has known everything he needs to know for a long time. The course is renowned for its vicious subtleties and its swirling breezes and the tension between attack and defence, but because the Masters is always at Augusta, the key performance patterns are established and must be observed.

For example, every winner since 2005 has been inside the top 10 after the first round – with the sole exception of Tiger Woods, who has come from further back a couple of times, and is excused from many trends. McIlroy is acutely aware of this statistic. He spoke about it before last year’s tournament: on the back nine on Sunday the traditional pin positions are designed to incentivise a late charge, but if you get too far back earlier in the week, the course will lure you into bad decisions and expensive outcomes. To his cost, McIlroy has run that gauntlet.

And yet, his career at Augusta has been characterised by dull and occasionally destructive, first rounds. His aggregate score for round one, in 15 appearances, is level par. Just level par. Only twice has McIlroy broken 70 on the first day. One of those occasions was in 2011, when he shot 65 in round one and led the tournament by four shots going into the final round. The other time that he opened with a sub-70 round, in 2018, he was in the final group on Sunday with Patrick Reed.

He doesn’t need to be convinced of the value of a strong start at the Masters. Thirteen times he has failed to produce it on command. Standing on the first tee on Thursday he will know what he must do. Ignorance is not the issue.

People said from the beginning that McIlroy had the ideal game for Augusta. They used to say the same thing about Greg Norman and Ernie Els, neither of whom won the Masters in the end.

As recently as 2018 he had the fourth best scoring average in the history of the Masters. All-time. Since then his numbers have taken a hit. In this year’s field he has the 16th best scoring average at 71.5 – but that is precisely the same as Dustin Johnson and Hideki Matsuyama, both of whom have a green jacket. McIlroy’s game is no less suited to Augusta than theirs.

“It’s sort of just like I’ve got all the ingredients to make the pie,” he said last year. “It’s just putting all those ingredients in and setting the oven to the right temperature.”

As far back as 2016 McIlroy said that “each and every year that passes that I don’t win it, it will become increasingly more difficult”. In the years that have passed it has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. You wonder how much of his head space is consumed by that thought? Behind his professed love for the course and the tournament, how can he reach an accommodation with the torment it has visited upon him? Of all the mental challenges McIlroy has faced in his career, this is the most burdensome, by far.

He will know that the historical trends are against him now. In the history of the Masters most of its great winners needed fewer than five attempts to win their first green jacket: Tiger, Nicklaus, Watson, Seve, Palmer, Player, Sarazen. Only four players in the history of the event have won the Masters for the first time after their 13th attempt. McIlroy will try for the 16th time this week.

Is there any crumb of comfort in the numbers? Sergio Garcia won it on his 19th attempt. Was there anyone flakier than him?

“It is very much a mental golf course”, McIlroy said years ago, “and confidence is a very fragile thing, especially around here.”

For McIlroy, that is the enduring problem. Not physical.

One other thing: Red got out in the end.