Psychologically scrambled Rory McIlroy exits Masters press conference early

Psychologically scrambled Rory McIlroy exits Masters press conference early
Rory McIlroy begins his latest bid to win the Masters this week

Rory McIlroy is supposed to be the cheery anecdotalist, always happy to give the world a window into everything from his swing changes to his struggles of conscience. Not this year, though.

Scheduled to hold his mandatory Masters press conference at 12.30pm Augusta time, he turned up six minutes early, with minimal warning, and left three minutes after it was scheduled to begin. As a reflection of the pressure he felt ahead of his 10th attempt to complete the career Grand Slam, it was telling. For once, golf’s Mr Loquacious was in no mood to talk.

Nearing a decade without a major, a drought that seemed unthinkable when he won two in three weeks in 2014, McIlroy finds himself psychologically scrambled. He has tried every conceivable ruse to mitigate the stress of chasing the elusive Green Jacket: in 2019, he even enlisted a guru from Florida’s Central Institute for Human Performance to calm him down. Slipping a little too often into mindfulness-speak, he had to reassure his doubters at one point that he was not about to join the monks of Nepal.

Augusta exerts the strangest effect on his psyche. We have seen it ever since 2011, when he stood on the 10th tee with a four-shot lead and hooked a drive wildly into the shrubbery outside the whitewashed cabins. Myriad chances have come and gone in the meantime, with McIlroy either playing himself out of contention with a ragged opening round or slipping into the shadows on Sundays. When he missed a second cut in three years 12 months ago, he looked ready to hurl his clubs into Rae’s Creek. It appeared as if the Masters, the tournament to which he was supposedly best suited, was becoming the one itch he could not scratch.

Tiger Woods, no less, scoffed at this idea, arguing that McIlroy was too gifted not to taste glory at Augusta. “No question, he’ll do it at some point,” he said. “Rory’s too talented, too good. He’s going to be playing this event for a very long time.” McIlroy is already quite the veteran, with this year marking his 16th trip up Magnolia Lane at the age of 34. Will the ultimate prize ever be his?

Psychologically scrambled Rory McIlroy exits Masters press conference early
Rory McIlroy is desperate to complete a career grand slam - Getty Images/Maddie Meyer

McIlroy seemed grateful that Woods answered in the affirmative. “It’s flattering to hear the best player ever to play the game say something like that,” he said. “Does that mean it’s going to happen? Obviously not. But Tiger has been around the game long enough to know that I at least have the potential to do it. I know that I have, too. It’s not as if I haven’t been a pretty good player for the last couple of decades. Still, it’s nice to hear it when it comes out of his mouth.”

In all honesty, McIlroy is weary of listening to the views from the sidelines. He has heard it all before, this theory that he is somehow divinely decreed to be a Masters champion by virtue of his brilliance. He has been tempted to believe it himself, preaching the virtues of patience. But on this occasion he appears determined to screen out the noise, refusing to turn his media duties into public psychotherapy sessions.

All he volunteered here was that he would resist the urge to be too gung-ho. Asked about what he learned about the central Augusta conundrum – wanting to win, but not allowing that desire to be overwhelming – he said: “Not trying to win it from the first tee shot. It’s a 72-hole tournament. I’ve won from 10 strokes back going into the weekend, so there are lots of different ways to do it. This course gets you to chase things a little more than other courses. If you’re out of position, because it tempts you into something you think you can do.

“I’m pretty confident in my game. I can do most things, but sometimes you just have to take the conservative route and be a little more disciplined and patient. Over 72 holes, you can have discipline, and you can stick to your plan. That’s something I’ve really tried to learn at this tournament over the years.”

Butch Harmon has been enlisted to fill in the few missing technical pieces. McIlroy is desperate to rediscover some composure with his short irons, and who better to turn to than the 80-year-old super-coach who masterminded Woods’ 1997 masterpiece, when he won by 12? The pair are texting each other daily, with McIlroy acknowledging that he leans on Harmon not just for expertise but for “validation” that he is on the right path.

Validation: it is a concept that suggests an insecurity in McIlroy’s mindset, a sense that he no longer quite trusts his own instincts. It would have been fascinating to explore this in greater depth, but his appetite for an inquisition was waning. “Thanks very much, ladies and gentlemen,” announced the moderator, Ireland’s John Carr, after a mere nine minutes.

And with that, McIlroy swept out of the auditorium, resolving to save his most eloquent messages for the course. It marks an abrupt shift in approach for someone who, for the past two years, has talked so much about the LIV schism that his critics have wondered aloud whether he is a politician first and a golfer second. This latest performance provided a definitive answer: McIlroy, once the master of earnest self-analysis, is looking to lose himself in his golf.

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