AUGUSTA, Ga. — On Tuesday, two days before the start of the 2023 Masters Tournament, Rory McIlroy insisted he arrived at the Augusta National Golf Club “as relaxed as I ever have been coming in here.”
In fact, he called finishing second at last year’s Masters, “a breakthrough.” His work with a sports psychologist had him feeling “a lot more loose, a lot more confident.”
Probing the popular, affable McIlroy about his psyche in the run-up to the Masters is an annual rite of spring in the golf community. The practice can be traced to 2011 when McIlroy, then 21, had a four-shot lead entering the Masters final round then shot 80 to finish tied for 15th.
Worse, the meltdown had arresting visuals — the mop-topped McIlroy deep in thorny woods, so far from the 10th fairway the broadcast cameras could barely find him through the maze of loblolly pine trees. When his head finally appeared near a white cabin meant to be out of play, McIlroy appeared dazed.
His Masters results improved in subsequent years, statistically at least. But did they help his overall cause? Yes, he contended again, but finishing in the top 10 seven times since 2014 only underscored what has not happened: He has been close again and a but never won at Augusta National.
Framing the quest for the championship of the sport’s most watched event were McIlroy’s victories in the other major championships: at the US Open, the British Open and twice at the PGA Championship.
Only five players have won golf’s Grand Slam: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Or as McIlroy likes to say with a smile: “I am reminded of that on the eve of every Masters.”
He was asked about it Tuesday: What would it feel like to join that group?
“Feel pretty good,” he replied. He added his analysis of his struggles at the Masters.
“I’ve always felt like I have the physical ability to win this tournament,” he said. “But it’s being in the right head space to let those physical abilities shine through.”
Around noon in the second round on Friday, McIlroy stood next to his golf ball in the middle of the 11th fairway. He was in perfect position to attack the downhill green about 170 yards away. As McIlroy swung, his right hand came off the club almost at contact and his shoulders immediately slumped. His left leg buckled ever so slightly.
His face had the familiar look of an exasperated golfer: Not again.
The ball sailed toward a pond left of the green then plopped into it. McIlroy hung his head. The crowd near the green gasped.
It would lead to McIlroy’s fifth bogey in the opening 11 holes. He would rally with two birdies on the par-5 13th and 15th holes, which were playing relatively easy on Friday, then bogey the 16th. the Augusta National grounds: His tee shot on the 18th hole disappeared into a thicket of pine trees. There was McIlroy again, barely visible, trying to find a way to extricate his ball from the woods. It led to a final bogey and a round of 77, five over par. He shot an even par 72 in Thursday’s first round.
Although play was suspended by inclement weather late on Friday afternoon, McIlroy will undoubtedly miss the midway cut for the tournament once the second round is completed on Saturday — or Sunday if rain or thunderstorms continue to interrupt the tournament. It will be the third time McIlroy will be excluded from the final two rounds of the Masters and the second time it has happened in the last three years.
When his Friday round ended, McIlroy walked into an adjunct building alongside the Augusta National clubhouse where players enter their scores. He was expected to do two television interviews inside that facility and then speak with a group of reporters waiting for him outside. He instead decided all interviews, according to a spokesman for the club.
It is certainly understandable if McIlroy, consistently one of the most accessible elite golfers in the game, had nothing else to say.
Saying too much has not helped in the past. It was on the eve of his disastrous fourth round in 2011 that McIlroy told a packed interview room at Augusta National: “I’m finally feeling comfortable on this golf course.”
And in his Tuesday interview, he could not have been more effusive about how prepared and confident he felt about contending at the 2023 Masters. He was philosophical.
“I think you have to go through everything, right?” said McIlroy, who is the world’s second ranked golfer. “Not every experience is going to be a good experience. I think that would lead to a pretty boring life. You know, You have to learn from those challenges and learn from some of that scar tissue that’s built up.
“You know, I felt last year that I maybe shed some of that scar tissue and felt like I sort of made breakthroughs.”
He continued: “Good experiences, bad experiences, it all adds up at the end of the day.”
Friday afternoon, McIlroy received polite applause as he left the 18th green. He nodded at the crowd and forced the thinnest of smiles.
But another of his comments from Tuesday perhaps best expressed his thoughts at the moment.
“I’ve been knocking on the door for a fifth major,” he said, “for a while.”