In his bid to win the career grand slam, Rory McIlroy has tried nearly everything. He's played a lot. He's played very little. He's gone to Augusta National early. He's gone to Augusta National late. He's convinced himself that the Masters is the only tournament that exists. He's convinced himself that it's no different than winning the John Deere Classic.
This year, McIlroy is trying something he's technically never tried before: He's playing the Valero Texas Open at TPC San Antonio the week before an eighth rip at the career slam.
It's true that McIlroy has played San Antonio the week before the Masters, but that was back when he only had two major championships and the career slam was still a bit of a hazy dream on the horizon. In 2013, McIlroy finished second at the Texas Open the week before the Masters and went on to post a T25 that remains one of his worst outings ever at Augusta National.
Since then, he's gone on a tear at Augusta. From 2014-20, McIlroy finished in the top 10 six times across seven events before running out of juice last year when he missed the cut. Augusta is a course that seems to be designed specifically for what he does best, and he's proven over and over again that his skillset overlaps almost perfectly with the blueprint somebody would theoretically draw up to take down a green jacket and bag the career slam.
However, he hasn't done that yet.
In 2014 and 2015, he shot a 40 on one of the nines in the middle of his tournament. In 2016, he was paired with Jordan Spieth in Round 3 and shot 77 to play himself out of contention. In 2017, he went out in 39 on the first day and never fully recovered. In 2018, he found himself in the final pairing with Patrick Reed on Sunday and stumbled his way to a 74 after three straight rounds under par. In 2020, he beat eventual champion Dustin Johnson over the last 54 holes but was again undone by a 75 in Round 1.
McIlroy has two different things going for him this time around. It's been so long since his first attempt at the career grand slam (April 2015) that this storyline -- though it's still discussed with earnest -- is no longer the first thing anyone wants to discuss as it relates to the Masters. It hasn't been forgotten, but it's also not easily remembered.
Those first few years of his bids were so intense, and that microscopic breakdown undoubtedly affected him. Now, at least with the broader golf world, his attempt is seemingly lumped in with Spieth's run at the PGA Championship and Phil Mickelson's at the U.S. Open, both of which would complete their own career grand slams.
Though his finishes at Augusta look terrific on paper -- his all-time scoring average of 71.48 is seventh best of anyone with at least 25 rounds, and 10 top 25s in 13 starts is excellent -- there hasn't been a ton of true contention on Sundays (for a variety of early-round reasons mentioned above). It's not difficult to pinpoint a reason.
It's clear that your approach game has to be locked in throughout the week (see below), and that's an area where McIlroy has sometimes struggled. According to Justin Ray of Twenty First Group, McIlroy ranks 54th in strokes gained on approach shots of the 74 golfers who have at least 10 rounds at Augusta since 2015 (he's second off the tee and 16th in putting). Approach play is where McIlroy has the most to gain at this event.
"I think just distance control, that's so important at Augusta," McIlroy said Wednesday. "... [The Texas Open] a really good guide to see where my game is, especially if you're having to hit shots under pressure to try to win a golf tournament, that's when things start to stand out and things that you maybe need to work on. For the most part, my game feels good, so it was just a case of just continuing to do what I've been doing over the last couple weeks."
One problem for McIlroy -- I can't believe I'm saying this -- is his age. At 32, he's certainly not old and will have several more looks at a Masters win, but he's also starting to enter the territory at Augusta where few players have won their first Masters. This year's event will be McIlroy's 14th. Only Billy Casper (14th attempt), Mark O'Meara (15th) and Sergio Garcia (19th) have won their first green jacket after this many tries at the Masters.
First Masters win by attempt...— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) March 21, 2022
1 -- 3 golfers
2 -- 5
3 -- 7 (inc. Tiger)
4 -- 9
5 -- 4
6 -- 5
7 -- 3
8 -- 2
9 -- 2
10 -- 6 (inc. Hideki)
11 -- 1
12 -- 3 (inc. Phil)
13 -- 1
14 -- 1
15 -- 1
16 -- 0
17 -- 0
18 -- 0
19 -- 1 (Sergio)
McIlroy insisted this week that his game feels good right now, and the numbers back that up. McIlroy is one of just eight golfers who have gained 1.7 or more strokes gained from tee to green in the months leading into the Masters. Eight of the last 10 Masters champions have cleared that marker in the three months leading into the tournament, and even though McIlroy hasn't won so far in 2022, his game has been probably a little bit better than people think even though he hasn't played much. On Wednesday, he explained why he skipped the WGC-Dell Match Play last week and opted for Texas instead as he builds for next Thursday.
"I think it was more just getting four competitive rounds in," said McIlroy. "And I wanted to play stroke play as well. I think that's the other thing. I wanted my last competitive start before Augusta to be a stroke play event instead of match play. It's two completely different mindsets, so that was part of the reason, too."
"I'm way more comfortable with my game [than I was this time last year]," he added. "I'm happy with where everything is. Everything seems like it's a lot more settled."
The second thing McIlroy has going for him is the cover that a five-time Masters champion might soon provide. If Tiger Woods plays his first competitive event in 17 months at Augusta next week, the only storyline that could feasibly usurp it -- outside of the president of the United States parachuting in on the first tee on Thursday morning to hit a ceremonial tee shot -- is whoever wins Sunday evening. And even then, most of the field -- if they were to win -- wouldn't qualify as a storyline that could outrank the Woods comeback.
That's great for McIlroy, who has privately expressed fatigue over the immense interest in his quest.
"If Tiger plays ... Rory has an opportunity of sneaking in a little bit under the radar, which I know he absolutely loves," said CBS Sports analyst and three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo this week. "He knows the priorities. It's about distance control. One you've hit a decent drive, it's how well you control the distance with all those short irons so he knows what to do. He may get a little chance to sneak around Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and it's a little quieter for him."
"Nick, I just want to say that's a brilliant point," added CBS Sports lead announcer Jim Nantz, who is set to cover his 37th Masters. "On this very call for any number of years now, since he's been going to Augusta for the career grand slam, he's been really the focus of attention. I do think if Tiger's in the field, he's kind of quietly coming to Augusta without all the fanfare and without the questions and expectations."
If McIlroy wins the 2022 Masters to join Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen as golfers with career slams, it might be due to yet another new angle of preparation for the biggest event of the year or because Tiger took some of the pressure off of him. However, more of it will be because he's a generationally-gifted golfer who kept knocking on the door at golf's most sacred banquet hall.
There are certainly signs that are pointing to this being Rory's year at Augusta. Coincidentally, there's never been less buzz about the possibility of one of the most exclusive clubs in sports gaining a new member.
There are plenty of reasons for that, but it's unmistakable that while the drumbeat of history is as faint as it's ever been going into golf's best week of the year, the reverberation from a McIlroy win at the Masters and the career slam that would come with would last for as long into the future as these major championships are played.