Rory McIlroy is going to win this Masters. He has to, right? He’s the best player in the world by a comfortable margin, and Augusta National sets up perfectly for his towering draw. He has always displayed a dramatic sense of the moment, and there’s never been a better time to break through: McIlroy won the last two major championships of 2014, a victory would give him the career Grand Slam, and he would continue his pursuit of matching Tiger Woods’s greatest feat, winning four straight majors. History awaits. It is inevitable. It is ordained. Isn’t it?
“Well, the Masters does funny things to people,” says Johnny Miller, three times a runner-up there. “Some guys get Augusta fever. I know I did. It’s such a sweet tournament, the course is so thrilling, the setting just reeks of golf history, [and] once you get a taste of being in contention it can drive you nuts. It doesn’t allow you to play your normal, comfortable game, because you want it too much.”
“I wanted it badly,” says Greg Norman, who had nine top six finishes at Augusta, including three seconds. “Did I want it too much? Probably.”
“I did put quite a bit of pressure on myself there,” says Ernie Els, who has a half-dozen top eight showings at the Masters, including a pair of seconds. “I always felt I was made for that course. It was to my detriment, unfortunately. It didn’t quite work out for me. Sometimes I wish I could’ve approached it a little differently, but it is what it is.”
Miller, Norman and Els are not the only ghosts rattling around the pines. Lee Trevino should have won a Masters. Tom Weiskopf too. And Davis Love III. All of these Hall of Famers — well, Weiskopf and Love aren’t in yet, but probably will be someday — are cautionary tales as we fit McIlroy for a green jacket before he has hit a single shot. No course on earth dishes out serial heartbreak and humiliation quite like Augusta National. For a man of only 25, McIlroy already has a star-crossed history there.
It began with his debut in 2009, when as a 19-year-old playing in his first major as a pro, he left a shot in the greenside bunker on his final hole of the second round. In a fit of pique he either did or did not kick the sand, which should or should not have been a two-stroke penalty. After McIlroy signed for a 73 that allowed him to make the cut on the number, a controversy erupted as to whether he should have been dinged for “testing” the condition of the sand. Smoothing a footprint is not considered testing the sand, but kicking it is.
On the morning of the third round McIlroy was summoned to a meeting with Fred Ridley, the chairman of the Masters competition committee, who four years later would give Tiger Woods a controversial pardon for a questionable drop. McIlroy explained himself thusly: “I did a smoothing of the sand…. I might have done it a little vicious, a little vigorously, but that was my intent [to smooth the sand]. It wasn’t my intent to test the sand.” Not exactly Judge Roy Bean, Ridley bought the explanation, saving McIlroy the ignominy of being disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. If you find yourself chatting with certain blue-blooded USGA types at a cocktail party, in a moment of candor they might opine that McIlroy’s explanation strained credulity and that by clinging to it, he forever invited the wrath of the golf gods.
In any event, the next year McIlroy shot a second-round 77 to miss the cut, and then in 2011 he famously took a four-stroke lead into Sunday, only to self-destruct with an 80 on a day so wrenching that he was left nearly weeping on the 13th tee after hooking his drive into trouble. McIlroy now calls that Sunday meltdown the most important round of his career, because it gave him the resolve and know-how to win his first major championship two months later at the U.S. Open.
Three more major triumphs have followed, but McIlroy has not yet made peace with Augusta National. In 2012 he was a stroke off the lead at the midway point, but on Saturday he double-bogeyed the 1st and 7th holes and toured the front nine in a ghastly 42 strokes. McIlroy was so punch-drunk, he was reduced to giggling on the course with his playing partner Sergio García, and when they both birdied the par-3 12th, they shared a hug that looked like two prisoners clinging to each other before being sent to the gallows. In 2013, McIlroy opened with two solid rounds, but he again blew himself out of the tournament on Saturday with a 79 that included water balls on 11 and 15. Last year a second round 77 — his fifth Masters in a row with a score at least that bad — left him as the first player out on Saturday morning, and, mortifyingly, he was beaten by a noncompeting marker. He did close with a 69, but his backdoor eighth-place showing is his only finish inside the top 15 in six starts at the Masters.
I recently asked McIlroy if Augusta National intimidates him. “Uh, yeah, I think so,” he said. “I mean, tee to green not really. I feel very comfortable tee to green. But the greens, for sure. They’re the toughest we face all year. I don’t know if it’s intimidation; it’s just you gotta think about them more. It does play on your mind more than other courses.”
McIlroy has routinely ranked in the bottom half of the Masters putting stats, but his problems transcend the flatstick. In 22 career rounds he has an astonishing 11 double bogeys and three triples. And for all of his vaunted length he is only 21 under on the par-5s. (When he won in 2010, Phil Mickelson was 12 under in four rounds, and the last six champions have played the par-5s in an average of 2.13 strokes under par per round.)
McIlroy has become a tougher, more mature golfer in the last year, but he still shares the hyperaggressive style that brought Norman so much success — and failure — at Augusta National. “He’s probably the best driver of the golf ball since, well, me,” says Norman. “The problem with Augusta is you have a pitching wedge in your hand and a perfect lie in the fairway, so it’s hard not to go for the flag. But if it’s, say, the 14th hole and you miss by two feet on the wrong side, you’re going to have an impossible up-and-down. So you have to accept that aiming 25 feet from the flag is O.K. That’s not easy to do when you’re used to going for it every other week of the year.
“I wish I had scaled back. There are probably a dozen shots in my career, if I could do them over again, I’d play them much differently, much more conservatively. Would it have made a difference in the outcome? I’d like to think so.”
Yet it’s only in his advanced age that Norman has come to see the error of his ways. Paul Casey talks of Augusta National as a riddle that can rarely be solved in real time. “The problem is Augusta breeds indecision, which is what makes it so good,” Casey says. “You stand on number 12 and you go, Is it a 9-iron or an 8-iron? And just when you’ve decided [on a club] you think, You know what, I could hit wedge. Those holes create massive indecision and, therefore, errors. So if you have a clear mind, you can overcome the struggle, but it’s easier said than done because it’s just a pressure cooker.”
To eliminate big numbers, McIlroy will need to be more judicious with his aggressiveness but also more precise with his iron play; even as it’s evolved into a longer, tighter test, Augusta National remains a quintessential second-shot golf course. In 2014, McIlroy ranked sixth on the PGA Tour in greens in regulation, but during his run-up to this Masters his iron play was scratchy across three Florida events. (Had he played enough rounds to qualify for the statistic, he would rank 80th in GIR.) Even worse is his proximity to the hole, as his average of 38’10” would rank him 178th. (Last year, he was 31st.)
McIlroy opted to skip the two tournaments leading up to the Masters so he can get his irons dialed in while working with his lifelong teacher, Michael Bannon. Assuming his long game is there, the biggest challenge will be on the greens. “If you have a weakness in your game, it’s going to come out on that course,” says Miller. “In my case it was putting, and there were times I felt exposed on those greens. Rory’s putting has gotten better, but pretty clearly it’s not the strength of his game.”
Ultrafast greens in particular have never been McIlroy’s forte. Rather, his U.S. Open victory and both PGA Championship wins came on tracks that had been saturated by rain. A firm, fiery Augusta National will always be the toughest test for McIlroy because of the precision and discipline it demands and the stress it puts on every putt.
But let’s say McIlroy has command of his all-around game next week. Will that be enough for him to win? I asked him the other day if he feels haunted by his Masters past.
“No, not really,” he said. “I guess 2011 was the hard one, but I’ve played three Masters since then, so any sort of scar tissue should be gone. I don’t necessarily believe that past results have any effect on how you play a certain tournament.”
Norman has a more metaphysical viewpoint. “I do believe destiny plays a role,” he says. “Sometimes strange things happen that can’t be explained. Sometimes destiny is not on your side. At Augusta it always felt like I was the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Larry Mize, I mean, I didn’t think he had a chance to even get that [ball] up and down, let alone chip it in. In ’86, I easily could have won, but what can you do about Jack shooting 29 on the back nine?” Nicklaus actually closed in 30, and Norman could have forced a playoff with a par on the 72nd hole, but he missed the 18th green into the gallery wide right and made bogey. Still, you get the point.
Considering all the great players who have never won a Masters, it is tempting to believe that powerful outside forces are at work. So, Shark, are the fates on McIlroy’s side?
“Yes, I think he’s destined to win a Masters,” Norman says. “He’s got a great attitude, and he’s got the perfect game. Time is on his side. But I will say this: Every year that goes by and you don’t win one, it gets harder and harder. At some point destiny seems to change its mind.”