The most astute observations about elite sport do not always come from those competing. It was Rory McIlroy’s wife, Erica, who delivered a perspective on the Masters that resonated with one of the world’s finest golfers.
“She put it this; it’s like when you are a kid and you go to Disneyland,” McIlroy says. “You think it is the only place in the world. When you are at Augusta that week, it’s the only place in the world. You drink the punch, everyone is wearing their Masters gear. It’s like Disney with your mouse ears.
“You leave on Sunday night and all of a sudden you snap out of it. The week passed so quickly and you were in a daze because of the whole Augusta thing. You have got to strip that all away. It’s a golf course, it’s a golf tournament.”
After winning the Players Championship last month – a first trophy in 12 months – McIlroy will return to Augusta National next week as one of the favourites for a tournament that has eluded him, sometimes painfully. At 29, he is seeking to become only the sixth player to complete a grand slam of majors. That McIlroy has not won one of the big four since 2014 only fuels the hype around him. He is judged by loftier standards but he has no problem with that status.
The McIlroy of 2019 has spent a lot of time reading. He classes the genre as “self-improvement” with the undertone being that perhaps something different was needed to break the Masters mould. He first competed at Augusta in 2008 but two subsequent Masters linger. In 2011, he capitulated horribly over the closing nine tournament holes from a dominant position. And when the scene appeared set for McIlroy to topple Patrick Reed over the final round last year, he was unable to apply sufficient pressure to the American.
“If you win you win, if you don’t … I think it has taken me a while to get to this point,” McIlroy says. “I’d love to win it. I’m going out there to try my best. Indifferent maybe sounds wrong but I’m not at the point where it’s a burden to me. Not at all.”
If making history by completing the slam would be a compelling story, McIlroy is not consumed by thoughts of the prize; the placing of the Masters on a pedestal has proved to be detrimental. “Over the last couple of years, the only thing I feel has held me back between the golf I’ve played and the golf I want to play is mindset. That’s it. Nothing physical, purely how I’ve approached things mentally.
“I have made a good effort this year to treat every week the same. It is never any different; you are playing four rounds, out there trying to win. It is all about perception and meaning. Augusta only means so much to people because of what they attach to it. The only reason Augusta means so much to me is because of what I attach to it. So if I take some of that away … It is not easy but it can be done. It’s just trying to see things in a bigger picture, taking a step away from this tiny little bubble that is the golf world.”
McIlroy success at the Players appears to show the approach is working. Curiously, though, his latest tilt at the Masters will come in a year when it isn’t even the summit of his aspirations. The return of the Open to Royal Portrush, where McIlroy used to watch his father, Gerry, compete in amateur events, holds special significance. “I don’t know if I am going to get to play in another Open at home. I don’t get emotional about it – I get excited.”
And yet, McIlroy, who will be 30 next month, recalls “dejection” as being the main emotion 51 weeks ago after failing to secure the one major to elude him. He had slipped to a 74 and never looked at ease as Reed rather strolled towards the Green Jacket.
“The first time I let it go, in 2011, I didn’t know how many chances I was going to have. Now I’m pretty confident I’m going to have more chances to win at Augusta.
“It was just disappointment last year that I didn’t play better. I mentally wasn’t in the right place to fight through some of the tendencies I had with my swing. The day was summed up by missing everything left in the warm-up then hitting my first tee shot 40 yards right. I was like: ‘What’s going on here?’ So that was in the back of my mind all day. I played conservatively, defensively. Augusta can make you do that.
“You’ve got a chance here, you may as well just feel like you have nothing to lose. It’s that playing without the fear of failure, welcoming the situation. If I am going to lose I may as well lose by playing my way. I can accept making mistakes if I’m 100% committed. It’s mistakes when that’s not the case that really get to me; that’s what I did in that last round.”
A common misconception seems to be that McIlroy’s lifestyle somehow diminishes his on-course appetite. McIlroy knows what Masters victory would mean, he is just keen to put it into context.
“I would join a group of people who are legends of the game that I fell in love with as a kid. That is really cool. That is unbelievably cool. If I win the Masters I’m not going to wake up on Monday morning as a different person. I’ll be the same Rory, with the same parents, same wife, same group of people around me. Nothing is going to change.
“I desperately want to win it, because I want to feel that satisfaction that I had worked hard, persevered, persisted and eight years later after having that chance to win the Masters I’d achieve something I hadn’t done before. That’s hugely motivating but it’s not going to make me a different person. It won’t change the opinions of people I value.
“I live the greatest life I ever thought I could. I am thinking of the bigger picture; will it change the fact I’m married to a great person, will it change that I’ll hopefully have kids one day and a great family? All that stuff isn’t going to change if I win four majors or 10. It’s not lack of motivation, it’s fulfilment in my life. Winning tournaments makes me happy, satisfied I’ve achieved something but that’s not fulfilment. Fulfilment is much bigger than golf tournaments. I don’t need to fill a void in my life by winning majors. I don’t have that void. So does it scare me that I might not win another major? It doesn’t scare me at all but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to.”
McIlroy has finished inside Augusta’s top 10 every year since 2013 but his critics demand so much more. That his best friend, Harry Diamond, has been his caddie since the ending of a relationship with JP Fitzgerald in the summer of 2017 has been a frequent cause for sniping, despite a string of results that are more consistent that at any stage of McIlroy’s professional career. He is aware of the external noise, even if he makes an effort not to give it oxygen.
“Harry is one of the most professional and hard-working guys out here. People don’t see that but it’s a lazy, easy criticism to make. ‘He should get a proper caddie.’ Don’t get me started …
“There are misconceptions about my game but more about my attitude. I work ridiculously hard. People think I’ve been born with this natural talent, I go out and play golf without caring about it. I work harder than most but I don’t put it out there. Why do people need to see that? When I’m at home I’m spending eight or 10 hours a day at the course; gym, hitting balls, putting, short game, playing. I’ve never gotten the ‘pure talent’ thing, because this is years of hard work.”
Cliche bashing has become something of an endearing McIlroy habit. Do not suggest, for example, that a Masters win would represent the completion of a journey. “The journey isn’t for 10 years. The journey even to get to that first [professional] win was longer than the journey to get to here from there. The journey from hitting golf balls at two or three years of age to winning? That was 16 to 17 years.
“If I need to wait for this, fine. I’m in this for the long haul, this isn’t something I’m going to give up in a couple of years to do something else.”
It is left to others to contemplate the level of expectation should McIlroy be in Masters pole position on the morning of Sunday week.
“It’s just that final little step of, when you are in contention not giving a shit if you win or not,” McIlroy says. “If I’m committed to this life-long journey of trying to be one of the best players ever, why does this one round count more than any of the others? If I go out there and play the game the way I know I can? I’ll be fine.”
McIlroy may privately hope this is an epic understatement. So many of those looking on most definitely do.