AUGUSTA, Ga, -- As far as blowouts go, the 2022 Masters was a great one. The first major championship of the year at Augusta National never truly got that close on the weekend, and yet there are seemingly a million things to discuss as the dust settles. Because I went deep on Scottie Scheffler on Sunday evening, I'd like to start with the silver medalist. Rory McIlroy shot the round of the day, and the tournament, by three strokes on Sunday while breathing some life into what could have been a snoozer of a finale.
It was, as most McIlroy downpours are, impossible not to get swept up in. That's his singular hold over this sport in the post-Tiger Woods era. Nobody cooks like Rory does, and when you marry that with his aspirational self-awareness and the fact that he's become the voice of the sport in so many ways, he will -- no matter what the scoreboard says -- remain a beacon of hope for fans searching for a thrill.
There are many ways to look at his 64 on Sunday. The first is that he was never truly in contention and that it's a fitting bookend to his collapse in 2011. One horrific memory and one all-time moment to take away from Augusta National for the McIlroy biography, but that it could also be his last meaningful moment at that tournament.
This is not an absurd position. McIlroy will be nearly 34 years old when he tees it up for the 15th time at this event next April, and only two golfers have won in their 15th start or later at the Masters. He has more chances but not a lot more.
Which brings us to the second way to look at what transpired...
His comments after the round were instructive when he called it "as happy as I've ever been on a golf course right there." There's a path forward from the end of this event in which the final round of 2022 Masters reminds him what it's like to be a kid on the golf course again -- one who has no idea what to do with his hands in a celebratory moment -- and rejuvenates his major championship career.
April 10, 2022
Part of Rory's problem at major championships is that he can sometimes get too deep inside his own head. That's the unintended consequence of being a relatively normal human being, and he seems unwilling to trade his humanity for more trophies, if that is even an option. However, there was a raw freedom he played with on Sunday that hopefully encourages more of the same in the future.
The hard part for him will be balancing freedom with wisdom.
McIlroy told me after the Ryder Cup last fall that he used to wonder why Tiger Woods wasn't more aggressive on every shot, why he was so conservative all the time. Then, as he got older, he started to understand why Big Cat played the way he did because your 21-year-old self cannot envision failure like your 31-year-old self can. There is both good and bad to that realization, and McIlroy answered his own question on Tuesday before this tournament started when he said that Augusta National was a place that you need to play conservatively to give yourself a chance.
That dance with freedom and wisdom and when to apply the two at a Rubik's cube like Augusta National is difficult. Early in his career, it was easier for him to let it rip in the early rounds of the Masters with 25 years of starts in front of him and no scar tissue behind him. This year, we seemingly got a much more conservative McIlroy early on -- following his own advice -- before he pulled out the blowtorch on Sunday afternoon.
That equilibrium of aggressiveness and caution is impossible to find, especially at a course like this one, and you do wonder if he needs to flip the vision of his week to aggression early and conservatism late. I don't know the answer to that question, and he might not either, though it will be interesting to discuss for the next 12 months.
What I do know, though, is that we almost got one of the great closing kicks in golf history on Sunday, and that a man who's in a massive drought that nobody saw coming once again rekindled a major championship joy that he hasn't felt in a very long time. I hope it continues into the PGA Championship in May.
Here are eight more thoughts after a wild week at Augusta National.
2. Scheffler's 2021 trajectory: I have two Scottie Scheffler notes, and they are not related in any way. The first is that I think some folks are acting like Scheffler emerged out of nowhere to become a Masters champion. The reality here is that his ball-striking numbers in 2022 are almost identical to what they were in 2021. He's putting and chipping great, which is why he's winning, but nothing else has changed. It's a reminder that the best short game among the best ball-strikers, especially for an extended period, can stack a lot of wins in a short amount of time.
3. The Gamer: What the stats cannot account for is how much Scheffler wants the rock when it counts. He doesn't always look as beautiful as Collin Morikawa or Tony Finau or even McIlroy, but after his win at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play last month, I heard him talk about how much he loves competing. He said it again on Saturday evening.
"Playing in the final group is always so much fun, so I'm looking forward to it," said Scheffler.
That's probably rarer than we'd like to believe it is, even at the top of the food chain in professional golf, and it's a delight to see somebody who's not only not scared of the moment but cannot wait until the next one.
Rick Gehman, Kyle Porter and Greg DuCharme react to Scottie Scheffler's dominant victory at the 2022 Masters. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
4. Three holes: Cam Smith made two doubles on Thursday and a triple on Sunday and lost by … seven strokes. It's always easy to play the "what if" game, and even more so when you were three pars from a playoff. Like Scheffler, his ability to score is off the charts, but unlike Scheffler, he doesn't gain as many strokes off the tee. That's why I've been so immensely impressed with his finishes at Augusta National (three top fives now). He's not the type of player who necessarily should thrive at this place, but his iron game is terrific and he can get up and down from anywhere on the property. In some ways, it feels like his run is going to last longer than Scheffler's, and I think he's a fun play for either the U.S. Open or Open Championship.
5. Tiger, Old Course: Speaking of the Open Championship, I'm elated about Tiger's commitment to play St. Andrews this summer. As bearish as I was about his chances of legitimately contending coming into this week at Augusta National, I feel the opposite about him at the Old Course. I genuinely believe that if his leg improves a bit, he can contend and potentially even win the 150th Open. It's also probably going to be his last real chance to win an Open at one of the most special spots in sports. His appearance there will be must-see, and I low-key hope he gives his body -- which looked worse than I thought it would as he sported a full-on limp by Sunday -- a breather to prep for the last major of the year.
6. Is the new 15th good? I'll leave that for more architecturally minded folks to answer, but it's certainly not as fun as it used to be. Augusta National moved the 15th tee box back and, according to McIlroy, cambered the fairway to move from right to left, which pushed a lot of drives behind the trees on the left side. The result was a lot more laying up and no eagles on that hole for the first time in over 50 years.
Part of that was a wind into players' faces over the first few days, so I'm willing to reserve judgement until next year. But that second shot -- if players went for it -- used to be my favorite second shot in golf. Now it seems like the amendment of that hole, which was intended to force more decision-making on the approach, instead forced too many players to lay up for most of the tournament, which was not the intended outcome.
7. Major Morikawa: His 67 got overshadowed by his playing partner's 64 on Sunday (they shot a best-ball 61, by the way), but this was a nice encore for the most recent major champion coming into the week. He seems to have figured out that old Tiger ethos of peaking four times a year. He has six top 20s and has lost to 31 golfers in his last six majors dating back to the 2020 PGA Championship -- which he won.
8. Upside-down Masters: This was one of the stranger Masters I've ever attended in terms of the rhythm of the week. Monday was louder than Saturday, and the middle two rounds felt like December. The payoff came on Sunday in what was one of the most perfect weather days in the history of the tournament, both because it was a nice closing act but also because it provided the scoring conditions needed for somebody to shoot a 64.
9. Perfect number of major championships: Two notes on majors. The first is that four of them a year is ideal. I've been chirping this for a while now, but there are going to be a lot of golfers who end their careers with fewer majors than you think they should have won. That's why they're so special and so revered. If there were six, things would be too diluted. If there were just two, winners would be too arbitrary. Four is [chef's kiss] good.
The second is that the major championships need to implement podiums like F1. It felt monumental that McIlroy made his Sunday afternoon run and shot the round of the week, and all he has to show for it is a "2" on his Wikipedia page. Podiums are a big deal in F1, and they should be in golf, too. How many podiums spots could McIlroy or Jordan Spieth earn? Could they match Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in terms of beating all but one or two golfers in an event? This wouldn't diminish wins, and it would give lower-tier players like J.J. Spaun and Harry Higgs something to legitimately play for on Sunday afternoon when they're 10 back of the lead. Finishing second or third in a major championship is a monumental achievement, and it should be recognized as such.