Rory McIlroy matured and ready to seal career Grand Slam
Northern Irishman is physically and mentally strong as he eyes prestigious green jacket
Rory McIlroy prepares to play a shot out of the flowers on the 13th hole during the third round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in April 2018. Photograph: Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy hung around for a short time after finishing his fourth round of the US PGA at Bellerive.
He was relaxed, if only because he was done and dusted a long time before the real business in the championship would be conducted by others.
McIlroy was asked how he’d remember the 2018 Major championship season. “Probably won’t,” he replied, laughing. “I mean, I don’t think there was anything all that memorable about it.”
And, by his own standards, it was a fair observation. A look at the numbers game would have shown that McIlroy actually figured in two of last year’s Major championships – tied-fifth at the Masters, runner-up at the British Open – but the hollow laugh to accompany the words spoke volumes.
'It’s been having to focus over the last six or seven months on my attitude, not letting golf define who I am as a person'
The numbers lied. He knew, more than anyone, it was not a year to remember.
On that mid-August day on the outskirts of St Louis, Missouri, McIlroy skedaddled out of town long before Brooks Koepka capped off what was a year to remember for him by adding the Wanamaker trophy to his US Open title.
McIlroy faced into the rest of the autumn, a full winter and well into a new spring knowing that each day, week and month would ultimately lead him on a path back to Augusta National Golf Club off Washington Road for the 83rd edition of the Masters tournament, where – for a fifth time – the Northern Irishman will attempt to complete the career Grand Slam.
In each of the four previous years in failing to find the elusive piece to the Big GS jigsaw puzzle, from 2015 to 2018, McIlroy has finished 4th-10th-7th-5th in successive attempts.
He’s hung around, found himself on the fringes, sometimes even getting to within touching distance, but never managing to get a green jacket placed upon his shoulders. Not yet, anyway.
“It’s definitely taken me time to come to terms with the things I’ve needed to deal with inside my own head,” admitted McIlroy recently, adding: “I think sometimes I’m too much of a fan of the game because I know exactly who has won the Grand Slam and I know exactly the people I would be putting myself alongside.
“If I didn’t know the history of the game, and I wasn’t such a fan, it would work in my favour. But that’s not me. It would be a massive achievement. It would be huge.
“But again, I can’t think about it in that way. I just have to go out and play the golf course the way I know that I can play it, repeat that for four days and hopefully that’s good enough to have the lowest score.”
McIlroy’s return for this latest attempt for a place alongside the greats in golfing history has a different feel to it, though. Injury-free, which is obviously a help, and playing great golf, there is also something about his demeanour which suggests he is more comfortable in his own skin.
'Do I have a desire to do it? Yes. Do I have a need to do it? No'
The results so far this season – 4th-5th-4th-2nd-6th-1st-9th – have shown a level of consistency that, in years previous, would have been alien to him where peaks and troughs were seen as the norm.
There is a swagger, a confidence. Most of all, perhaps, a maturity.
“We are seeing a more mellow McIlroy,” said Europe’s former Ryder Cup winning captain Paul McGinley, who will again work at the Masters in his role as a commentator for Sky Sports.
“We are seeing a more mature McIlroy and a more consistent McIlroy and all of those are going into a cocktail of very high performances week after week.”
Even McIlroy – who will turn 30 years of age next month – has identified his growing maturity as a reason for his consistency.
“It’s been having to focus over the last six or seven months on my attitude, not letting golf define who I am as a person . . . one thing I used to do in the past is I’d let what I shot that day influence who I was or my mood; to try and keep those two things separate is something I’ve worked hard on because who I am as a person isn’t who I am as a golfer.
“It took me a while to get to that point where I realised who those two people were,” admitted McIlroy, adding: “I think that’s been the big difference between the highs and lows of the last few years and the more consistent play, even over the last 12 months . . . I’ve given myself a chance most weeks.”
As if to underscore how well he has played, McIlroy has chalked up more world ranking points so far this year – 186.6 of them – than anyone else. Dustin Johnson, with 174.4, is next best.
Justin Rose, with 82.1, less than half of McIlroy’s amount, is 10th in the current form calculations. McIlroy, in this particular numbers game, is ahead of the posse.
Look at the statistics so far this season too and McIlroy’s dominance off the tee and then in getting to the green tells no lies.
He is number one on the PGA Tour in strokes grained off the tee and number one in strokes gained tee to green. Although only 56th in the putting stats, there is undeniably an improvement with the short stick.
Part of that is down to the impact of former tour player Brad Faxon, although Faxon’s more important role could actually be as influencer – often a chat over a coffee – which has changed his mindset, a contributory factor to the player’s growing maturity.
McIlroy is one of three players heading into this Majors season with the chance to claim the career Grand Slam. He is the first to get the opportunity. Next month, Jordan Spieth will try to close the deal at the US PGA.
In June, once again, it will be Phil Mickelson’s shot at the US Open.
“The challenge [Rory] has is a bit like Greg Norman and Ernie Els, ” claimed McGinley. “Everyone says his game is perfect for it and it’s only a matter of time before he wins at Augusta – but that’s the worst thing people could be saying. That just piles more pressure on. Neither of those two players won the Masters, despite their huge talent.”
For McIlroy, arriving to the Masters with pressure on his shoulders is a constant. But unlike Norman and Els before him, he still has the chance to claim a green jacket.
As McIlroy himself put it in the run-up: “I’ve had 10 years of learning at Augusta. Some tough times.
“And all of those if one day I’m able to get that green jacket at the end of 72 holes, all of those experiences will have played a part in helping me to do that.
“So do I have a desire to do it? Yes.
“Do I have a need to do it? No.”
Will the desire outdo the need?