Rory McIlroy will be the center of attention at the 79th Masters as he attempts to win his first green jacket and complete the career grand slam. With a victory, McIlroy would join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods as the only men to win all four majors. A Masters victory would also give McIlroy his third straight major title dating to the British Open last July, meaning that at the U.S. Open he would be attempting to match Woods in holding all four titles at once.
But McIlroy is also cautionary tale 1A when it comes to the pressures of trying to win golf’s most prestigious tournament, a victory that comes with a lifetime invitation to the hallowed grounds. Those pressures can overwhelm a young player, which was what happened when McIlroy, then 21, was in control through three rounds in 2011. But then he stopped making putts on the front nine on Sunday; hit a shocking pull-hook at the 10th hole, leading to a triple-bogey 7 to fall out of the lead; and four-putted the 12th green from 20 feet for a double. His Masters was over well before he signed for a final-round 80.
“It was the first time I had ever been in that situation in a major and at Augusta,” McIlroy said before his most recent start, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, where he finished 11th. “It all got a little too much.”
For all of the speculation about Woods, 39, a man who is a decade removed from fourth Masters title — and whose last major title came almost seven years ago, at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines — this week’s tournament is about the kids and just how ready they are to take control of the game.
Young players have rocked it in 2015. Patrick Reed, 24, got it started with a victory at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Jason Day, 27, won the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Brooks Koepka, 24, took the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Not long after returning from a six-month hiatus, Dustin Johnson, 30, won the WGC-Cadillac at Trump Doral. Jordan Spieth, 21, earned his second Tour win, at the Valspar Championship, dispatching Reed and old man Sean O’Hair, 32, in a playoff. And in case you’ve forgotten, Billy Horschel, 28, is coming off an epic run to win last year’s FedEx Cup.
They seem to have no qualms about winning on Tour, but winning a Masters, or any major, is a much bigger ask, often resulting in disastrous consequences. Think Johnson at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he led by three after 54 holes but shot 82. Or think Day, who looked like he might win the 2013 Masters as he stood on the 16th tee on Sunday.
“I had the lead,” Day said after winning the Farmers in February. “I was leading the Masters, and I wanted to be the first Australian to win it. It just got me. It really did. It got me, and I felt like I was tensing up and I didn’t know how to handle it.
“I didn’t know what to do to go through the process to calm myself down and really focus on what I needed to do to get the ball in the hole. And that’s where I bogeyed 16 and 17. It took me out of the tournament. It’s tough, but that’s where you learn.”
For the record, the last 20-something to win the Masters was Charl Schwartzel, who was 26 when he closed with four straight birdies in 2011.
Should the young guns falter, those in golf’s 30-something demographic will be primed to win the green jacket for the fourth year in a row.
After failing to close out the Hyundai in January, quiet, smooth-swinging Jimmy Walker, 36, won the Sony Open the next week by a tournament-record nine shots. He became the only two-time winner in 2015 at the Valero Texas Open two weeks ago, and not even McIlroy can match his five victories over the last two seasons on Tour.
Could Walker win the Masters? Yes, but he’s got to prove it. Adam Scott, 34, the 2013 champion, has proven it. So has Bubba Watson — twice.
Like McIlroy, Watson, 36, has shown flashes of his best stuff in 2015 but without really stringing four good rounds together. Still, his two Masters victories in the last three years make him a perennial favorite.
We used to say that about Phil Mickelson, 44, who has dropped off the radar since winning the 2013 British Open. Since then Lefty has a meager two top 10s, including his agonizing second at the ’14 PGA Championship. Augusta used to be where Phil came alive no matter the state of his game. But in his last two appearances, he was 54th and 52nd.
Woods, who announced last Friday he would compete, is even more of a shadow of his former self. He came down with the chip yips at the Hero World Challenge in December, shot a second-round 82 to miss the cut in Phoenix in February, and then withdrew with an injury at the Farmers at Torrey Pines the next week.
Perhaps someday they’ll rediscover their mojo at Augusta, a place that saw Jack Nicklaus, then 58, work his way into contention in 1998 before tying for sixth. It’s always dangerous to count out those who know Augusta best, but this year, it seems, that’s a chance worth taking.
This article appeared in the most recent issue of SI Golf+ Digital, our weekly e-magazine. Click here to read this week’s issue and sign up for a free subscription.