AUGUSTA, Ga. — The locks that once curled out from under the edges of Rory McIlroy’s caps are long gone, replaced by streaks of gray at the temples. His face is more lined now, the twinkle in his eyes replaced with a deeper knowledge. He used to strut around Augusta National like he owned the place, and for many years he did … right up until Sunday afternoon came around.
It defies belief, but this is McIlroy’s 14th Masters, and every one of them has ended in frustration. Augusta National has beaten McIlroy to the ground in ways both cinematic and heartbreaking. The image of McIlroy looking lost amid the cabins that run along the edge – the very far edge – of the 10th hole in 2011 is one of the defining golf images of the 21st century, the moment when one of the game’s greatest players ran right into the teeth of its most crucial tournament.
McIlroy had rolled into that Sunday leading the Masters by four strokes. You know the old line about how the Masters doesn’t begin until the second nine on Sunday; McIlroy’s Masters died there. He shot a 37 on the first nine – not terrible, enough to still hold a one-shot lead – but then he hooked his tee shot so far off the fairway that it could have checked into a cabin. McIlroy triple-bogeyed that hole, turning a one-shot lead into a two-shot deficit in just minutes.
Seven years later, he was once again in the final pairing at the Masters, three shots back of playing partner Patrick Reed. McIlroy sliced the lead to one in just two holes, missing an eagle putt that would have tied it, but wasn’t able to keep from stumbling once again.
Masters remains elusive
It’s probably not a coincidence that the Masters remains McIlroy’s last great challenge, the final jewel in a career Grand Slam. He’s come here every year since 2009 as a competitor, and every year since 2015 with a chance to close out that Slam. Early on, he’d roll into Augusta as one of the primary stories of the tournament: Is this the year Rory gets it done? OK, fine, he didn’t last time, so is this the year?
The answer, every year, has been no – not just no thank you, but no, it’s not happening, and maybe it’s never going to happen, and if that’s how his future Hall of Fame career ends up – with one big green-jacket-shaped hole – well, there are more important things in life.
“I’m maybe at a different stage of my life, where back then, golf was everything,” he saiid. “Obviously, look, it’s still very, very important … I know that if I play well, I’ll give myself chances to win this golf tournament.”
Plus, one of the unexpected benefits of failing to achieve the one goal everyone wants you to achieve is this: keep missing the mark long enough, and people just stop asking you about it. It’s the galaxy-brain version of reducing pressure on yourself: just keep coming up short.
“If I think back to 2015 when I was coming off that run,” McIlroy said, referencing his three-wins-in-nine-majors stretch, “yeah, there’s certainly less pressure, I feel, than there was then.”
Throughout the 2010s, McIlroy reeled off six top-10 finishes over seven Masters, an impressive run out of context but more of a backdoor cover than a sign of dominance. It was as if McIlroy struggled when the pressure was on him, but when someone else ran away with the Masters – Jordan Spieth in 2015, Dustin Johnson in 2020 – McIlroy could play free and easy, without the pressure of a white-hot second-nine spotlight.
Any pressure McIlroy feels this year will be almost entirely self-imposed. Like virtually every other player in the field, McIlroy is flying in under the radar. The will-he-or-won’t-he of Tiger Woods’ possible-and-now-likely return sucked up all the oxygen in Augusta, leaving room for McIlroy to breathe and work in relative, welcome obscurity.
“It does make it nice with the practice rounds,” McIlroy smiled. “We were on the ninth green when Tiger and [Justin Thomas] and Freddie [Couples] teed off [Monday], and it was a mass exodus from the ninth green to the first tee, and then the back nine was lovely and quiet.”
Secret to Augusta: Just a little patience
McIlroy’s one of the more expressive athletes in any sport, and he spent substantial time Tuesday afternoon documenting exactly how he plans to defeat Augusta National once and for all. In short: fewer hero shots, many more smart and disciplined ones.
“Patience, discipline, don’t make big numbers,” he said. “It feels like a very negative way to think, but it’s the way to play around this place. You don’t have to do anything spectacular.”
For a guy who made a career out of dramatic hero shots – and equally dramatic collapses – this qualifies as something of a revelation, a counterintuitive go-slow-to-win epiphany.
“You see the highlights of people hitting heroic golf shots around here, but that’s just one golf shot,” he said. “The rest of the time, they’re doing the right things and being patient and being disciplined, and that’s what wins you green jackets.”
McIlroy is 32 years old, but he’s already venturing into some dusty territory at Augusta. Only three players have won their first Masters in their 14th start or later – Billy Casper in his 14th, Mark O’Meara in his 15th, and Sergio Garcia in his 19th. Most players good enough to keep coming to double-digit Masters bring one home eventually.
On the flip side, the fact that McIlroy was such a prodigy is now paying off. He’s two years younger than Casper’s winning age, five years younger than Garcia’s, and nine years younger than O’Meara’s. He’s still got the vigor of youth – gray hairs notwithstanding – combined with the wisdom of spending nearly half his life on the PGA Tour. He may not win the Masters this week, but he’s got time to try a few more strategies before he’s done.
“I’ve always said time is on my side, and I’ll keep saying that until it isn’t, whenever that is,” McIlroy said. “I’ve got a few more gray hairs than I used to, but I’m still young at heart.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected].