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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rory McIlroy’s circuitous journey continues.
Earlier this week, a surprisingly upbeat McIlroy broke down where he is with his game at the moment for the media masses. “I'm just at the start of a journey here that I know will get me back to where I want to be,” he explained.
This is the Masters. This is where McIlroy completes his transition from a great player to a legend. This is where the Northern Irishman completes the career Grand Slam and joins the likes of Nicklaus, Woods, Hogan, Sarazen and Player.
This isn’t where a player of McIlroy’s caliber comes to find his game or start a “journey,” and yet there he was early Thursday mired at the bottom of those iconic leaderboards.
He bogeyed three consecutive holes, starting at No. 5, and added a fourth at the ninth to turn at 3 over. Historically, McIlroy has struggled early in big events. His last two starts at the Masters were over-par efforts (75 last November and 73 in 2019) and he has just two first-round cards in the 60s at this tournament in his career. But this was different.
His work with new swing coach Pete Cowen has been intense. The duo has spent a good part of Masters week digging holes into the tournament practice area as the 31-year-old tries to reconnect with his old swing. Say what you will about Rory’s game, but his issues don’t stem from a lack of effort.
The Masters might be where McIlroy’s career remains on hold but it’s no place for the unsure or unprepared, particularly on a crusty Thursday when the course flexed all that fast-and-firm muscle that was missing at the November Masters. It’s hard to swing with conviction when you’re still in the courting phase.
“I think more than anything else around here, it's trusting that on these side slopes and having these balls that are 2 feet above you. That was sort of what happened on 13,” said McIlroy, who bogeyed that par 5 “It's that part of it where I'm on the range off a flat lie, yeah, perfect, I can do it every time, but then once you get on the golf course and you get these different lies and different shots and different winds, that's the litmus test right there, and it still didn't feel quite 100%.”
The byproduct of that uncertainty was an opening 76 and a share of 62nd place, out of 88 players, when he completed his round. It was the worst opening round of his career at Augusta National and his worst start at a major since the 2019 Open Championship. But if you’re looking for a disgruntled golfer, Rory’s not your guy.
There were bright spots on an otherwise cloudy day. He was pleased with his wedge shot approach into the 14th hole, his drive on No. 15 and his 7-iron into that green, as well as his 9-iron tee shot at No. 16. Oh, and his drive at the last was encouraging.
“I was starting to get into a rhythm,” he said. “I wish I could have kept going. Might have given myself a few more chances. But there were some good shots coming down the stretch there.”
Struggling golfers rarely want to “keep going.” Most are more than happy to be off the course, but that’s not where McIlroy is at the moment. Few in the game at this level are as adapt at turning lemons into lemonade and a scrappy opening day, even at the tournament that means the most to him at this juncture in his career, is no reason to question himself.
As he explained earlier this week, the journey is going to take some time to get back to where he once was as the world’s top-ranked golfer and a regular contender at major championships. He also explained that there will be bumps along the way. Day’s like Thursday when a game that once seemed so easy is a non-stop struggle.
There was no better example of this than on the seventh hole. Reeling following back-to-back bogeys, he pulled his tee shot into the pines left of the fairway and in his attempt to manufacture a shot to the green he hit his father, Gerry, in the leg with his second shot.
“I knew it was my dad when I was aiming at him,” McIlroy laughed. “It was a perfect shot; it was dead straight. But I think he was OK. He didn't limp away. He walked away pretty swiftly, so that was all right.”
Gerry McIlroy was fine and so is Rory. McIlroy understands better than anyone else that this circuitous journey will take some time.