AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rory McIlroy took yet another long Sunday walk from the 18th green at Augusta National to the clubhouse, and yet again, the cheers were of consolation and encouragement, not congratulations. Once more, he’d rolled into the final round of the Masters with momentum and touch on his side, and once more he had to watch as someone else slipped on a green jacket while he left the grounds.
McIlroy, who finished T5 at this year’s Masters, six strokes behind winner Patrick Reed, is the only player to have carded top-five finishes at the last five Masters. His 9-under final score would have won 54 of the 82 Masters they’ve held here, and if he’d just managed to shoot even par on the afternoon, he would have won 63 of them, including five of the last seven.
Rory McIlroy, it’s safe to say, picks bad days to have bad days.
For McIlroy, this one was over long before Reed strode up the 18th hole. After a two-shot swing that put McIlroy just a stroke behind Reed on the third tee, Reed shook McIlroy like a chew toy and tossed him aside. McIlroy would never again get closer than two strokes, and by the turn he was effectively irrelevant, passed by Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm, and caught by Cameron Smith, Bubba Watson and Henrik Stenson.
“It’s hard to take any positives from it right now, but at least I put myself in the position [to win],” McIlroy said after the tournament. “That’s all I wanted to do.”
What made Sunday’s – what do we call this, exactly? Not collapse. Slog? Let’s go with ‘slog’ – slog so fascinating and infuriating was the fact that McIlroy had unleashed what, for golf, passes as world-class trash talk on Saturday. He and Reed have a history, of course, a mano-a-mano showdown during singles play at the 2016 Ryder Cup that ranks as one of golf’s best moments of the last decade. And while McIlroy came out on the short end of that showdown, with Reed just edging him out 1-up, McIlroy still holds what he considers the trump card: an armload of majors.
“Patrick is going for his first,” McIlroy said Saturday, “and I’m going for … something else.” That something, of course, would be the career Grand Slam, an achievement only five players in golf history – and no Europeans – have ever completed. That’s a hell of a mic drop – call me when you’ve got three majors, kid – but McIlroy wasn’t done.
“I feel like all the pressure is on [Reed],” he continued. “He’s got to go out and protect that [lead], and he’s got a few guys chasing him that are big-time players. He’s got to deal with and sleep on tonight … I feel like I can go out there and play like I’ve got nothing to lose.”
What happened, of course, was that McIlroy played like he had nothing to offer.
The day began nasty and didn’t get much better. McIlroy’s very first drive soared so deep into the Augusta woods it nearly reached the South Carolina border:
But he managed to make par on that hole, and Reed’s bogey provided the first crack of daylight. On the second hole, McIlroy had a two-foot putt for eagle and a chance to claim a share of the lead … and he pushed it two feet past the hole.
After that, it was a horror show. McIlroy missed his approach on 3, missed his chip and missed his par putt, immediately giving back the stroke he’d just gained.
And then – McIlroy fans, shield your eyes, because this is ugly:
• A missed five-foooter for par at No. 5
• A missed seven-footer for birdie, and a missed two-footer for par at No. 8
• A missed nine-footer for birdie at No. 9
• A perfect drive, followed by a missed approach at No. 11
• A missed three-footer for par at No. 11
You get the idea.
“It was like every time I took a step forward, I took a step back on the next hole,” McIlroy said. “I would say 3 and 5 are the ones that I look back on, and if I could have made pars there it could have been a different story.”
So what went wrong? What turned the strutting, confident stud of Saturday into the timid, uncertain hacker of Sunday? McIlroy paused awhile before answering the question.
“I don’t know,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I had a decent warmup. I had a bit of a shaky drive off the first, but it was a really good up and down for par. … I feel like momentum is a huge thing, especially in final rounds. You look at what Jordan and Rickie did. They got on a roll, and I didn’t.”
McIlroy’s left now once again to contemplate his frustrating legacy at Augusta, one that began with his implosion at the 10th hole in 2011. He’s said of that day that he was too young to understand how to win a major. He doesn’t have that excuse now.
“The last four years I’ve had top-10s, but I haven’t been close enough to the lead. Today, I got myself there,” he said Sunday as, just a few feet away, crews were setting up chairs to honor yet another Masters champion who was not Rory McIlroy. “I didn’t quite do enough. But, you know, come back again next year and try.”
McIlroy’s now 28 years old. If he plays competitive golf until he’s, say, Phil Mickelson’s age, that means he’s got another 20 or so Masters ahead of him with realistic chances for green jackets. Surely he’ll win at least one of those, right? Right?
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