AUGUSTA, GA.—At the highest level of professional golf matters can change rather quickly. Consider the fact that after the 2014 season Rory McIlroy had won the final two major championships of the season, and heading into 2015 was looking for a win at The Masters to elevate him as the 6th member of the exclusive career Grand Slam club—and adding his name to the likes of Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. A who’s who in golf, indeed.
The Northern Irishman finished 4th at Augusta last year but was far removed from the main storyline as Jordan Spieth easily won and tied the tournament record in doing so. McIlroy stayed in the midst of things for the remainder of the 2015 season but the real focus turned to Spieth who would win the U.S. Open and come as close as anyone has in winning the Grand Slam in a single season.
There was also the emergence of Jason Day, the Aussie, now the number one player in the world having won six of his last 13 starts—including a record performance in claiming the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits last year with a four-round -20 total. Day has won in his last two starts on the PGA Tour and is the odds-on favorite to win his first green jacket at Augusta after having been in contention several times in the past.
When McIlroy won his 4th major championship after his 2nd PGA triumph in the waning daylight at Vahalla, there was no really serious contenders for the top slot in professional golf. That situation has changed rapidly and now the question becomes can Rory once again push his name to the top of golf’s pecking order.
When Rory tees off in the first round it will mark his 8th Masters start. Over the last two performances his finishes have been encouraging: a tie for 8th in 2014 and outright 4th last year—his best finish yet.
Five years ago, it appeared The Masters would likely be his first major win as McIlroy led by four shots going into the final round. But after finishing the front nine in one-over-par 37, the round simply imploded when he hooked his tee shot badly at the downhill par-4 10th and the resulting double-bogey simply meant a round in free fall as he finished with an 80—the highest score ever recorded for a professional leading into the final round.
McIlroy showed true resilience in coming back at the very next major, setting a new championship record with a 268 total in easily winning the U.S. Open at a moist Congressional CC.
As the number three ranked player in the world there is talk of golf having a new “Big Three”—with Day, Spieth and McIlroy—reminiscent of the 1960’s when the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player routinely picked off golf events of all sorts on a continuous basis. Frankly, such a grouping is a bit premature given the stature of the original Big Three.
For this year’s Masters, the 26-year-old is taking a different approach. Unlike years past Rory skipped the par-3 event that precedes the main tournament. The reason was clear: focus all energy on the primary objective—earning a green jacket.
Given his age and clear successes to date, McIlroy will have a number of opportunities to fill out his majors dance card with a Masters win but as time slides by the resulting scar tissue can build up. Witness the careers of top tier players who never won at Augusta—Greg Norman, Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller, come quickly to mind. Each of the aforementioned won other majors and clearly showed—with the lone exception of Trevino—that each possessed the wherewithal to win at Augusta, but never did. Among the current crop of multiple major winners who have failed thus far to earn a green jacket includes South African Ernie Els.
McIlroy’s game has been scrutinized and clearly he has shown the capacity to play stellar golf when all cylinders are running in fine form. In years past when Rory has been on his A-game, he has pushed aside any others. But, there have been times, when McIlroy has shown a penchant for being wayward and showing indifferent results. Much of that has been tied to an inconsistent putter which has shown a balky touch far from as effective as the likes shown by Spieth and Day.
Rory has changed his putting grip to build a better consistency in how he rolls the ball, however, the ultimate barometer for success will be tested thoroughly on the perilous contours that make-up the putting surfaces at Augusta National. Getting off to a good start with today’s first round will be a big time plus so as to keep questions from pesky media people at bay.
The Masters has been won by various other golfers from Europe and often their success at Augusta has not translated in winning the other majors. Englishman Nick Faldo, a former world number one, earned six major championships — 3 wins each at Augusta and The Open Championship. Spain’s Seve Ballesteros did similarly — albeit with one less win at Augusta.
If anything, McIlroy served as the trailblazer for the plethora of talented young players that have emerged throughout professional golf. In years past the march to Augusta centered exclusively on the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. The former is now recuperating from back surgery, the latter is playing well this season, however, his last win came at the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield.
McIlroy showed a tenacity and talent that did not flinch when facing the likes of Woods and Mickelson as he entered the major championship scene as a professional starting in 2009.
The scene has now shifted for Rory. A win at Augusta this week redirects the focus back to him as golf’s premier player—a 5th major, a career Grand Slam and the pathway to winning double digit majors in a lifetime is most certainly doable. Heady stuff indeed. It’s all there for the doing. The issue is can Rory push aside the mental clutter that can often weigh heavy at Augusta for those who so much want a green jacket added to their wardrobe. Just ask Norman or Weiskopf about the stifling mental pressures that they each failed to overcome. In 2011, McIlroy played superbly for 54 holes—the issue is doing it for the full 72. The chase begins.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.