AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rory McIlroy was sounding like an old man.
He reminisced about his first Masters — just 13 years ago — like it was ancient history. He conceded that golf is no longer the be-all and end-all in his life. His voice rose with excitement as he talked of playing in the par-3 contest with young daughter Poppy in tow.
“It’s funny. When you don’t have children, the par-3 seems like a bit of an afterthought,” he mused. “Then, once kids arrive, it sort of becomes the highlight of the week in a way."
Should we book you a table for the early bird special, Mr. McIlroy?
Not so fast. Sure, he's no longer the youngest guy on the course, but at 32 he's far from the oldest.
“I still feel like time’s on my side,” McIlroy said Tuesday, snapping back to reality. “I’ve got a few more gray hairs than I used to, but I’m still young at heart.”
Yet, with each passing year, he seems a little further away from one of golf's greatest achievements, a capper to his career that once seemed as sure a thing as the azaleas blooming during Masters week.
McIlroy hasn't won a major championship in nearly eight years. More than a decade has passed since he threw away his best chance to win the Masters with a horrific back nine on Sunday.
A career Grand Slam?
That's no longer an obsession, not like it was for the cherub-faced, moppy-haired phenom from Holywood (Northern Ireland, that is), turning up for his first Masters at the age of 19.
“I would say less pressure,” McIlroy said. “I’m maybe at a different stage of my life where back then golf was everything. Obviously, look, it’s still very, very important, but maybe back then I would think that, I don't know, like I was unfulfilled if I didn’t win one.”
The Masters remains the only missing link on his majors resume. He won his first U.S. Open in 2011 just two months after his Augusta meltdown. In 2012, he claimed the first of two PGA Championships. In 2014, the greatest year of his career, he won the British Open and another PGA.
Funny how it worked out.
Back in the spring of 2011, it sure looked like the Masters would be the first of his major titles.
McIlroy dominated over the first three days, leading after every round and going into Sunday with a commanding four-stroke advantage. He got off to a shaky start that day but was still ahead as he made the turn.
Just nine holes to go.
Then, everything fell apart. He hit his tee shot at No. 10 so far left they're probably still looking for it. He made a four-putt double bogey at 12. He finished with an 8-over 80, barely visible in the rearview mirror of winner Charl Schwartzel.
McIlroy shrugged off that huge disappointment in the best way possible. Over the 2 1/2 years that followed, he fully lived up to the greatness that was predicted of him.
And, yet, the green jacket has eluded him.
It's a glaring hole in his record, but he's not discouraged.
“I know if I play well,” McIlroy said, “I’ll give myself chances to win this golf tournament.”
He has finished in the top 10 at Augusta National a half-dozen times, not really close to winning most of those years but always in the mix.
McIlroy's first shot at the career Grand Slam came at the 2015 Masters, but he ran into Jordan Spieth during a virtually unbeatable stretch in his career. Four rounds under par, including a 68 and 66 on the weekend, was only good enough to finish six strokes behind the Texan.
Four years ago, McIlroy played in the final group on Sunday with Patrick Reed and came out aggressive, hoping to wipe out a three-stroke deficit. The result was a 74 that left him six shots behind Reed.
McIlroy learned a painful lesson that day, one that he's still struggling to apply at the Masters.
“Patience, discipline, don’t make big numbers.," he said. “For me anyway, it feels like a very negative way to think, but it’s the way to play around this place. You don’t have to do anything spectacular.”
If McIlroy can put together four unspectacular rounds, he might be wearing a green jacket come Sunday evening.
The one everyone thought he would surely have by now.
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