McIlroy yet to solve Augusta puzzle
Tendency to record one bad round ensures elusive green jacket remains out of reach
Rory McIlroy hits out of the rough off of the seventh fairway during the fourth round of the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga. Photo: Chris Carlson/AP
An American writer called Dorothea Brande once made an interesting observation. “There are seeds of self-destruction in all of us that will bear only unhappiness if allowed to grow,” she wrote with some degree of pragmatism.
She didn’t have golf in mind when making the point, but there’s a sense that Rory McIlroy’s relationship with Augusta National touches on it.
There’s no green jacket sitting on his shoulders just yet, even if there are greats of the game, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player among them, who feel it is only a matter of time. Surely his destiny. Surely, some time. McIlroy loves Augusta. The sight of it. The feel of it. The smell of it. But his problem with this piece of golfing heaven is in stringing four rounds together without a disaster sneaking its way onto the scorecard.
There is, it seems, always one day – one round – in a given Masters when the propensity to touch that self-destruct button comes along and, rather than hovering over it and looking for a second option, there is an inclination to push down on it.
That so-called meltdown in the final round of the 2011 Masters when his demise mirrored that infamous collapse of Greg Norman’s in 1996 is perhaps the cruellest of all indicators of this. But, each year, there have been others. A second round 77 in 2010 which saw him miss the cut. A third round 77 in 2012 than came as kick in the teeth. A third round 79 in 2013. This latest edition? Another 77, in Friday’s second round.
It’s interesting to listen to McIlroy in the aftermath of such times. You have to take your hat off to him, he stands there and self-analyses. There is no downward movement of the eyes, no seeking to hide. He takes things on the chin, doesn’t apportion blame to others. Not to his caddie JP Fitzgerald, of whom he is hugely loyal and trusting. Not to anyone; but, sometimes, some thing. The wind, for one.
On Friday, the self-destruct button was pushed on the fourth tee. With a five-wood in hand, he addressed the ball. The wind dropped as he was about to hit it. So he backed off. Then, he felt the wind again. He planned to cut the five-wood but hit it pure.
“It was all over the pin, it was just 30 yards too long . . . I got a really massive wind switch,” explained McIlroy. It was an explanation, not a complaint. These things happen.
Only, there is history. Very recent history as it turns out. In last year’s third round – a 79, remember? – McIlroy, following his round, twice referred to being caught out by the wind switching.
On the 11th: “the wind switched on me, it comes up short in the water and I take seven there, and I never recovered from that.” On the 15th: “I felt like I hit a good second shot in, the wind gusts back into me, it pitches on the green but it comes back in the water.”
The thing about Augusta National is that there are small margins. Players must play on those margins, executing shots – a variety of them – that get the required result. It demands patience and a game plan.
Ironically, it was Saturday’s outing with amateur Jeff Knox – the Augusta National-designated playing ‘marker’ should there be an odd man out in the field – that could probably give McIlroy food for thought.
Time and time again McIlroy outdrove Knox but, time and time again, it was Knox who got the ball into the hole in the smaller number of shots. In effect, there is more than one way to skin a cat and Knox demonstrated the importance of hitting the ball to the right place on both the fairways and greens.
Perhaps he did learn from Saturday’s outing. Yesterday – paired with Jimmy Walker – McIlroy set off two hours earlier than he would have wanted, a tee-time smacked in the middle of the playing order.
As he walked up the hill to the ninth green, McIlroy – finally – had the confident strut back in his step. A putter that had varied between cold and cool for the first three rounds (after he languished in tied-46 from 51 players in the putting stats) had started to warm up. On the seventh and eighth, he had rolled in birdie putts and, now, here he was on the ninth, eyeing up another. He rolled it in. a hat-trick.
McIlroy moved onto the 10th tee and the scene of his downfall in 2011. As he moved, the roars by the first grew ever louder. Bubba and Jordan Spieth were on the tee, ready to launch their respective quests for the famed green jacket. Different sizes, same goal.
Two hours in time, the difference between clearing the way and contending. McIlroy, a different man with a hot putter, could only wonder of what might have been; and knowing that the secret for future years, if he is to get that green jacket of his own, will be to keep that one disastrous round off his card.
Not to press the self-destruct button.