The enduring image of Rory McIlroy at the Masters remains clear to the mind, even if it has now been 10 years.
He is on the 13th hole and the full horror of fate that befell him has just begun on one of those enchanting Sunday afternoons around Amen Corner, where the line between beauty and cruelty has always been so finely drawn.
When he was only 21, he’d started the final lap with a four-stroke lead, and the media at home had their feel-good traits prepped for Monday morning from the mop-haired tyro from Holywood who has now been cast as the boyish wonder of British sport.
Rory McIlroy drops his bag after another quirky tee shot on the 13th in his final round of the 2011 Masters
Two and a half hours of unforeseen drama was all it took to discard or completely rewrite those pieces.
On the 13th hole, McIlroy fell over his driver when another tee shot rattled among the Georgia pines. He knew the game was over. When he got to the 18th, the patrons stood up as one – the dreaded sympathy voice instead of affirmation for the green jacket he craved. He signed for a card of 80 painful blows.
“I know I have many more opportunities,” he said. At the time, who among us had any doubts that he would return and win, especially after coming back so bravely to claim the US Open two months later?
McIlroy is still being chased after collapsing on his last lap at the 2011 Masters
Fast forward a decade, and the hard-to-understand fact is that McIlroy has yet to get that close to win the coveted prize. Yes, his Masters record looks eminently respectable in print. In his last eight appearances, he has collected six top 10 finishes.
BUT sifts among the bald figures and an uncomfortable truth emerges. Not one of those top 10 finishes came when he was in the middle of the action on that nerve-racking chunk of when the title hunt really kicks off: the back nine on Sunday.
Instead, the evidence paints a grim picture of a player struggling to cope when the pressure points hit. In 2012, he was just one shot from the mid-lead, but shot 77, 76 over the weekend.
McIlroy had a four-stroke lead on his way to Sunday’s round at Augusta 10 years ago
In 2018, he shot a brilliant third round of 65 to get into the final group with Patrick Reed, and spoke optimistically about putting pressure on the American.
The next day, it was McIlroy who was a nervous wreck, an opening device far from the line that predicted the story of another brutal Sunday experience in Augusta. It was the only time in the last eight Masters that the Northern Irishman went over par in the last round. The good rounds have come when he has caught up.
It wasn’t until November that McIlroy finished in tie for fifth after finishing with three rounds in the 1960s, but all the damage was done on Thursday, opening with a fatal 75.
Likewise, he shot 68.66 over the weekend in 2015 to finish fourth. That was the year when everything changed for McIlroy and the pressure gauge went up a few notches. His win at the 2014 Open meant he was now just the Masters away from becoming just the sixth golfer to win the Grand Slam in his career, and only the second after Tiger Woods in 2000 to win it since 1966.
The iconic Green Jacket still eludes McIlroy and he hasn’t nearly won it lately
Considering he was only 25 and the Elusive Masters on the one course he would return to every year, it seemed only a matter of time. But there is a reason Arnold Palmer never completed the Slam. Why Tom Watson Never Succeeded, Nor Lee Trevino or Sam Snead.
And it only gets harder as the years tick by. Indeed, it seems to have had a paralyzing effect on McIlroy’s performances in the other majors. After winning four in the space of as many years, McIlroy hasn’t won one since Slam’s career came into view. It’s as if the bitter disappointment of Augusta’s running away every April lingers without a coat in the summer.
The walls are getting closer as history has shown that few go seven years or more between winning majors. Woods went 11 years between winning his 14th and 15th in 2019, but majors are generally claimed in clusters, when a player briefly feels an aura of invincibility.
McIlroy was a nervous wreck on his last lap with champion Patrick Reed in 2018
This will be a different Masters for McIlroy in one sense. For perhaps the first time since he made his debut in 2009, no one is going to tip him to win. In the past month, his game has been such a confusing mess, he turned to a new coach, Pete Cowen, although he has been known for a long time. It’s like the wheel has turned full circle, and we’re back to the little boy who got lost on the 13th tee in Augusta. “It’s a very difficult game at times and I feel like it tests me a lot more than it has in recent years,” he said last week.
Will he ever be able to replace that enduring image from ten years ago with one of the previous year’s winners slipping McIlroy’s arms into the green jacket?
Sadly, with each passing year, it becomes more likely that his fate will align with Greg Norman and Ernie Els, golfers who appeared at the Born Masters but were never allowed to walk into the Champions dressing room. Players like Watson, Trevino and Palmer, and their vain search for the only major who would always be out of reach.
Only Mark O’Meara (15) and Sergio Garcia (19) have played in more Masters than McIlroy – who is preparing for his 14th Augusta adventure – for their first win