Rory McIlroy: The tennis sensation who inspires me – and my best Masters memory
Rory McIlroy knows all about being a 19-year-old superstar, but what he struggles to fathom is the foresight and clarity of Carlos Alcaraz. So impressed is McIlroy by the teenaged tennis superstar that he is taking inspiration for his latest attempt at completing the career grand slam.
McIlroy likes to read. Since the most recent of his four majors nine years ago – if not before – it has become something of a compulsion for the Belfast child who left school at 16. He has paid reference to stoical works from Ryan Holiday to Mihaly Csizszentimihaly, never once sounding pretentious, simply eager to be informed.
However, it is not a best-selling helpbook he has been thumb-crawling of late, but the media-centre transcripts of the reigning US Open tennis champion and youngest ever world No 1. McIlroy has yet to meet the Spaniard, but already rates him an ally.
“I’ve been reading Alcaraz’s interviews,” McIlroy said. “I mean, to have this philosophy and, more so, the understanding and the conviction at the age he is and with all the pressure he’s had and the expectation on him to be the next big thing as that golden age comes to an end… well, it’s incredible really. A lot of what he says sticks with me, but especially one bit.”
McIlroy is the most talented golfer who is active and that maybe includes even Tiger Woods, although with one appearance in the last 10 months it is probably safe to term the 47-year-old as “largely inactive”. Nelly Korda, the LPGA Tour starlet, might rival McIlroy for swing elegance, but in terms of consistent sweet rhythm on the male stage, few come with a par five.
The ability has plainly been a godsend, but since his ascent up the major charts has dried up, McIlroy’s natural gift has bizarrely begun to be cited as an actual disadvantage, particularly at Augusta. Jack Nicklaus, the 18-time major winner himself, last month even posed that notion. “Maybe it’s too easy for Rory, maybe he loses focus and just ‘plays’ golf, particularly at Augusta,” Nicklaus said.
Learning from Alcaraz’s ‘lovely, beautiful ambition’
Perhaps he has, but If McIlroy heard those strange comments then Alcaraz’s statements can act surely as the antidote.
“Carlos says his aim is always to play with ‘joy and instinct’,” McIlroy said. “That’s fantastic isn’t it? Listen to that – ‘joy and instinct’. What a lovely, beautiful and very plain ambition to have.
"It is what every kid has when they first play a sport and what invariably then gets lost when the really good ones progress and turn professional. The joy goes. The instinct gets lost. Alcaraz is not trying to be the new [Roger] Federer or new [Rafael] Nadal or new [Novak] Djokovic – he is just trying to play tennis as he wants to, but also to the best of his ability in a way that the fans will love. He talks of not making everything monotonous and life being more fun that way and his tennis being more fun to watch.
“Of course, you need your structure and to put in the hours and to grind and be ‘professional’, but you should not lose sight that this is a privilege and the moments should be enjoyed. There’s so much more to it than winning, although, of course, that’s what you yearn for. And maybe just relishing in the moment was why I acted like I did on the 18th last year at Augusta.”
It truly was the most glorious scene. McIlroy and Collin Morikawa, two-time major champion, were both in the forbidding bunker on the right. It was 4pm, the shadows were creeping over the pines as if they were grabbing a quick peek at the show before the finale. The overnight leaders were still more than an hour away from the clubhouse.
“Scottie [Scheffler] was four or five clear of me at the time, but he was on Amen Corner [the 11th to 13th] and I suppose you never know with [the par three] 12th and everything,” McIlroy said. “But I definitely wasn’t thinking ‘here comes my Green Jacket now'. I wasn't' standing over that bunker shot, thinking, ‘make this and you could get a play off’. I was totally in the moment thinking ‘how the hell do I get this close?’.
In case you missed it...
Rory McIlroy hit an OUTRAGEOUS bunker shot on the final hole at The Masters 🤩pic.twitter.com/yjwmPgSIRY
— Sky Sports Golf (@SkySportsGolf) April 11, 2022
“It was difficult, I had to aim well up the slope, would have taken eight to 10 feet all day. But then it dropped and I exploded. Collin then holed his – pandemonium! I’m telling you that’s as much fun as I’ve ever had on a golf course. And I’m also telling you that the second best time I've had like that was when I was in the final group with Tiger when he won at the Tour Championship [in 2018], his first title in five years. The atmosphere was amazing. So there you go. My two most favourite moments like that, have been when I’ve not won.”
What does that say about McIlroy? Firstly, it says he is a flaming good bloke and secondly it says that Vince Lombardi would have turned away disgusted and, let's all pray, that Piers Morgan would as well, never to return.
‘It might be a little victory to some – it was huge to me’
McIlroy does not care. At 33, he has piled up more silverware than 99.9 per cent of elite sports pros and is at the age when proving things is internal. The ‘joy and instinct’ mantra will serve him well and he can already qualify that positivity with how he felt driving back down Magnolia Lane 12 months ago, whilst Scheffler celebrated his three-shot win.
“It was my best finish at the Masters and shooting 64 on the final round [the lowest final round in Masters history] was an experience wherever you are in the field,” McIlroy said. “No bogeys. On the 18th, that was the fourth time I’d holed out from off the green that day. It was like one of those dreams you have, when everything goes right at Augusta.
“So it might have seemed a little victory to some – but it was a huge victory to me. That was the first time I’d ever left Augusta happy. Sure, I’d done well there before – I’d had something like six top-10s in the previous eight years – but that was the first time I’d left there with a big smile on my face. And with my history at Augusta, that was really notable for me.”
McIlroy is suited to Alister MacKenzie’s creation. To type that is a gross understatement. He was 21 when he took that four-shot advantage on Saturday night in 2011, only to suffer an extreme and brutal meltdown in the glare with that infamous 80 the next day. This Masters – his ninth attempt at trying to join Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen in the pantheon of grand-slam winners – he appears to be peaking.
The long and short of it certainly sounds in tune. McIlroy has sorted out his driving – courtesy of a shorter shaft on his club – and the Scotty Cameron putter he has placed in his bag is a replica of those days in the early 2010s when he was fearless and peerless.
Granted, in his Tuesday press conference, he will be asked about LIV Golf and as the PGA Tour’s most vocal opponent of the Saudi-funded circuit he will be expected to satisfy the headline writers. But as he mutters “I’ve done that for the last year”, so that should be a minor distraction.
The issue is the mental questions to come on Thursday and those first-round problems. In two of the last three years, he has outscored the whole of the field on the final 54 holes. Alas, it has too often been a forlorn, while thrilling, game of catch-up.
“I need to get out of the traps and not fall too far behind – that’s clear ” McIlroy said. “But there are good memories of Augusta there now. Yes, there were loads before; doing what I did for so long in 2011 and in a load of rounds since. But maybe last year helped to put the positive memories to the forefront of my mind. If nothing else, I know I can enjoy myself there. And I fully intend to.”