Marauding Rory McIlroy lights up the Masters but carping cynics quick to pounce

Rory McIlroy reacts after chipping in for birdie from the bunker on the 18th green - GETTY IMAGES
Rory McIlroy reacts after chipping in for birdie from the bunker on the 18th green - GETTY IMAGES

The buzz that vibrated across Augusta National when Rory McIlroy eagled the par-five 13th to move to six-under for his final round, five shots off Scott Scheffler’s lead, was visceral.

Suddenly the old place was humming; murmurs rippling through the galleries, elbows nudging excitedly: “Watch out, Rory’s on the charge”.

By the time the Northern Irishman holed out from a greenside bunker on 18 to sign for an eight-under-par 64, one shot off the course record, Rae’s Creek was positively fizzing.

Tiger Woods may still be golf’s golden goose, its No 1 box office attraction. But there is nothing like Rory McIlroy in full flight. That swing, that form. Golfing perfection.

It did not take long, though, for a certain cynicism to puncture the mood, at least on social media. Tweets along the lines of: ‘Yep, seen this before. Death, taxes, and ‘backdoor top 10s’ at the Masters for Rory McIlroy.’

Harsh, yes. But also fair.

For all that McIlroy’s final round on Sunday was glorious, for all that it enlivened a final day that threatened to see Scottie Scheffler fitted for the famous green jacket before he had even reached the turn, for all that it gave the crowd something to cheer as the wheels came off Cameron Smith’s round, we had indeed seen this movie before.

Maybe not in quite such dramatic technicolour, but we had seen it. A slow start, followed by a sprint finish. No one better than McIlroy when the pressure is off.

The pattern since he began chasing that career grand slam eight years ago is well established; the evidence there in black and white. Factoring in all majors since his last win at the US PGA Championship in 2014, McIlroy is now +35 in round one and -69 in rounds two-four. It is absolutely maddening.

Of course McIlroy should be proud of his performance. His round was extraordinary, producing a slew of incredible statistics for those who enjoy such things.

The charge may have come too late but McIlroy certainly enjoyed the moment - GETTY IMAGES
The charge may have come too late but McIlroy certainly enjoyed the moment - GETTY IMAGES

McIlroy’s 64 equalled the lowest final round ever shot at the Masters (a feat which had been done seven times before). The Holywood star gained a massive six strokes on the field around the greens, which is saying something as nobody else all week had a round with even three or more strokes gained around the green. It also happened to be the only bogey-free round of the week.

He could not have done any more. To begin the final day of a major championship 10 shots off the lead and end it just three shots back, courtesy of his best ever round at the Masters, a round which included an iconic chip-in from the bunker at 18, a shot which is likely to be added to ‘Great Masters Moments’ compilations, was magical, inspirational.

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It certainly seemed to inspire his playing partner Collin Morikawa, who, feeding off the euphoria around the 18th green, also contrived to hole his bunker shot to sign for a five-under-par 67 and fifth place.

It was too much to expect him to win. To do so would have been to tie the biggest final round comeback ever at a major (10 shots by Paul Lawrie at the 1999 Open).

McIlroy certainly did not expect to, although he did do an almost imperceptible double-take in his press conference later on being informed that Scheffler had just four-putted on 18.

McIlroy was justifiably proud of himself, even saying he thought it was a round of which the late, great Seve Ballesteros would have been proud.

“I sort of thought to myself: 'What the hell, let's give it a go here',” McIlroy said of his attitude going into the round.

“I birdied one and then managed to keep my foot down. I knew it would take something incredible to give Scottie something to think about.

"And I thought I'd done that when I holed out at 18. But he's closing this thing out like a champ. Hats off to him. He's been head and shoulders above everyone this week.”

Asked about that bunker shot on 18, McIlroy smiled: “Honestly, I thought it would just give me a chance. At that point Scottie was at -10 and it got me to -7 and he still had some tricky holes to navigate. And it was like the third shot I holed from off the green today. It was a round Seve would have been proud of I think.”

McIlroy bridled slightly when asked about his slow starts, arguing that you have to play your way into majors.

“You're not going to shoot 66 every time you tee it up in the first round of a major and win by a ton of shots,” he said.

“It has happened before, but these golf tournaments especially are about hanging around. If you try coming out of the blocks too fast, that's when you make mistakes.

“I’ll have major championships where I start fast, and have chances, like the US Open last year. And I'll have majors like this when I get off to a bit of a slow start.

“[But] I gave it a great go. I couldn’t really have asked any more of myself. I’ve shot my best ever score at Augusta, and second place is my best ever finish. Okay, it wasn’t quite enough, but I’ll be back next year and I’ll keep trying to go one better.”

All very true. And how wonderful it will be to see him do it. Until then, we must enjoy him for what he can do, for rounds like Sunday's at Augusta National.

The game is always greater for a marauding McIlroy. There is no more thrilling sight in golf. Unfortunately, until he proves once again that he can do it when the pressure is on, the cynics will always carp.