Masters 2018: Rory McIlroy comes up short in his best shot at the career Grand Slam
Tournaments don't define careers, but you only get so many shots at Augusta National
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Patrick Reed won the Masters. Guys, Patrick Reed won the Masters! With that we learned that he has whatever the thing is internally that golfers need to stand up under Sunday pressure. I wasn't sure about that. He wasn't sure about that. Nobody is until it's go time. It's one thing to win a Masters like Danny Willett or Charl Schwartzel did. It's quite another thing to sleep on a Saturday lead with Rory McIlroy in your pairing.
For McIlroy, Sunday was a turning point, too. In his 10th appearance here, he tallied his fifth straight top-10 finish, but shot a 74 to finish six back of Reed and didn't take advantage of one of the two real opportunities he's had thus far to score a green jacket. The reality that you don't get another crack for 51 more weeks and that you probably only get about 10 more in your absolute prime has to be sobering.
After a miracle par at the first, McIlroy twirled his club so hard at the second on his approach I though the grip might come unraveled. He hit it to seven feet and had an eagle opportunity to tie with Reed just two holes in. He missed, and never touched the lead again. A bumpy first nine emptied into a second nine void of drama. He coasted home in 2 over. Despite patrons pleading with him for five hours to upend Reed, McIlroy fought himself throughout.
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If you had told me on Saturday that Reed would shoot 71 on Sunday, I would have thought McIlroy, who averaged a 68.0 in final rounds before the Masters so far this season, would be wearing green on Sunday evening. Instead, he tied for fifth. I don't know if there is scar tissue when it comes to McIlroy. I don't know that what happened in 2018 affects what you do here in 2021. Maybe it does. We like to project this kind of stuff a lot, though. What I do know is two-fold.
1. You only get so many real shots here: Some years, Bubba Watson is going to gallop. Some years, Jordan Spieth is going to run away and hide. Some years are flukes. Some years you don't play well on a Friday. A normal golfer gets (at most) one real window on a Sunday at the Masters. You better shoot your shot. A golfer of McIlroy's caliber will get three or four or maybe five. He's now 0-for-2. That means there are probably only two or three left on the table.
2. 2011 vs. 2018: The other thing I know is that it's feasible McIlroy might lament this one more than the one in 2011. Trailing only Patrick Reed going into this Sunday at the Masters, he needed just a 68 on a day when the scoring average was 70.5. He shot a 74. Nearly four strokes over the field average, and he beat only four golfers in the field. Amateur Doug Ghim also shot 74.
"Of course it's frustrating," McIlroy said. "It's hard to take any positives from it right now, but at least I put myself in the position. That's all I wanted to do. The last four years I've had top 10s, but I haven't been close enough to the lead. Today I got myself there. I didn't quite do enough. But, you know, come back again next year and try."
McIlroy's third-round position, in retrospect, may have been propped up a bit by his least consistent skill: putting. His approach shots through three days weren't up to McIlroy-ian standards, and that was exposed on Sunday with the 74. This year was far different than 2011, too. There was no giant gag coming home. He just didn't have it. I thought because of history and destiny and all those very cliched buzzwords we like to throw around with him that it might click on Sunday. It didn't.
"I think when you're playing in the final group of a major there's always going to be pressure," he said. "But after I parred the first, that sort of settled me down. So it wasn't as if nerves got to me. I just didn't quite have it."
It's easy to dog the Ulsterman because it's always so easy to envision so much for him. A win on Sunday, and the "greatest European ever" conversation would have been real. His trajectory for the title he wants as greatest non-American golfer in history, would have felt strong. He would have been sixth to the career Slam. It could have (and maybe should have) been historic.
But again, he's still 28. A fifth major here would have meant only Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Bobby Jones and Rory McIlroy could say they held five majors while blowing out 29 candles. So maybe he's not tracking to be that historically great. But we're clearly dealing with a rejuvenated McIlroy intent on cementing his legacy, whatever it turns out to be, over the next 10 years.
Rory has always been well-adjusted but maybe at times too well-adjusted. Sometimes maybe the golf was a burden or didn't mean enough. His 2018 has impressed me, not because of what he's done on the course but because of the balance he has in life right now. He has noted multiple times this year that playing golf is fun and joyful again. The results show it. With players as good as McIlroy, sometimes that's half the battle.
So he'll come here in 2019 for another swing at the Slam. And if he doesn't win it then, he'll come again in 2020 and 2021 and 2022. It must be endlessly frustrating that something you crave so much is so far out of reach. His wrestling match with history happens one week a year. The other 51 are spent in training.
"I've played in two final groups in the last seven years, I've had five top 10s, I play this golf course well," he said on Sunday after not playing it very well. "I just haven't played it well enough at the right time."
You only get so many shots. McIlroy will have a few more. And his tussle with both his past at Augusta and the ghosts of golf history will remain as compelling a storyline as we have in this sport.
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