shooting for glory | 

Roy Curtis: Rory McIlroy’s hunger for Masters glory burns brightly

Rory’s Masters dream is golf’s equivalent of Mayo’s eternal pursuit of Sam Maguire

Irish golfer Rory McIlroy. Photo: Getty Images


In splicing the movie of his life, there are an abundance of soul-scarring Augusta days that Rory McIlroy would happily consign, like withered Amen Corner azaleas, to the cutting room floor.

At times, his pursuit of a green jacket seems cursed, a parched wayfarer seeking to draw water from a barren well.

His 2011 excruciating collapse – the shattering brilliance of the opening three days yielding to a Sunday where McIlroy might have been wielding an agricultural hoe as a club and a muddied turnip in place of a ball – felt like a cruel trick of the light, as baffling as Lewis Hamilton fumbling at the controls, unable to execute a three-point turn.

Bram Stoker’s imagination could hardly have conjured a more psychologically debilitating sequence of horrors as unspooled on that gutting Sunday a dozen years ago.

There have been other scalding disappointments – an inability to get across the line in 2018, the sequence of crippling first round misfires, the weekend mornings when Rory seemed to tee off before the contenders' alarm clocks had sounded - when the door to the history makers’ house slammed shut in his face.

McIlroy, one of professional sport’s more open books, an unusually helpful, patient and considered interviewee, has, at times, spoken candidly and with authentic emotion about those Georgia days when the sun declined to rise.

There is something epic and compelling (and Sisyphean, too) about Rory pushing the rock up Magnolia Lane each April to shake hands with his own backstory.

If not quite stretching back to 1951, his attempt to banish Augusta demons has advanced beyond the boundaries of a sporting contest and become a trending water-cooler topic of conversation, golf’s equivalent of Mayo’s eternal pursuit of Sam.

Of course, it is nine years since he has won a major of any kind, and it is hard to imagine, however much he announces otherwise, that all that peak-years lost opportunity does not torment the most naturally talented player since Tiger Woods.

A line from Joseph O’Connor’s novel, Shadowplay, came to mind, when, in an electrifying moment at Whistling Straits two years ago, Rory was impotent to contain his emotions and cried while being interviewed after losing his Ryder Cup singles match: “Tears are the part of grief visible above the water, they are not where the wreckage is done.”

What, you wonder, might the barrage of major wounds have inflicted upon his competitive spirit?

Recently, Rory has sounded just a little like Bob Rotella’s glove puppet in seeking to put a positive spin on both his past experiences and future expectations.

While admitting there would “100pc” be a “tinge of regret” if he finished his career without a green jacket, he insists it “pales in comparison to seeing my daughter happy, spending time with my family . . . my life isn’t going to automatically become better if I win a green jacket.”

It sounds very much like a player trying to reduce the pressure on himself by convincing himself the words are true.

It was interesting to listen to his fresh perspective on last year’s tournament.

A rush of adrenalin so tangible you could reach out and touch it surged through McIlroy’s body and energised the galleries after he holed out from a greenside bunker on the 18th to complete a stunning final round 64.

Reflecting on that in recent days, Rory said: “It was the first time in a long time I came away from Augusta feeling really happy about the week . . . that I felt joy and happiness . . . it was almost like going through some mental barrier.”

It is impossible to imagine a serial winner like The Tiger speaking such words. The 15-time major winner would instead have seethed that his poor play in the opening days had destroyed his chances of the only thing that matters. His world, as always, distilled down to the pursuit of a "W".

Rory’s final round last year, however exhilarating, was a dazzling mirage.

He began round four, 10 shots off the lead, in a distant time-zone from Scottie Scheffler, with zero chance of winning. His golf was wonderful, but it was, effectively, a no-pressure round.

He finished second, but ultimately it was meaningless, like Munster’s three late tries in Cape Town on Saturday, sufficient to massage the scoreline but not the reality that they had been brutally evicted from the Champions' Cup because of third quarter incompetence.

On the two occasions, Rory teed it up on Sunday at Augusta with a winning chance, he signed for an 80 and 74 respectively, an accumulated 17-shots more than the winner – Charl Schwartzel and Patrick Reed – in those years.

Maybe it is merely coincidence that his two worst final round scores at The Masters arrived when he was truly in contention. Or perhaps it reveals the difficulty in breathing under suffocating pressure.

Rory’s first imperative this week is to make a fast start.

His cumulative Thursday score at Augusta over the past four years has been a ruinous eight-over-par. To place that in some context, the first-round leader’s cumulative score over those same quartet of tournaments has been 25-under-par.

In other words, from 2019-’22, McIlroy’s effective chances of victory after day one have been as tiny as the dimples on his golf ball.

Charging through the field might be a crowd-pleasing example of his extraordinary talent, but it cannot disguise the fact that he has not been a contender at Augusta for too long.

On major Sundays when the prize is within his reach, the story has been familiar. The blowtorch intensity seems to scorch McIlroy’s nerve.

It happened again at St Andrews last summer. The magic ran away, the putter went cold, the irons struggled to deliver their flag-chasing penetrating flight. Holding a share of the lead after 54 holes, he was outscored 64 to 70 as Cam Smith came from off the pace. Once again, the gold dust fell between his fingers and was lost.

A McIlroy victory this week would be a story for the ages, a superior talent and an authentically good guy, joining the storied quintet – Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen – who have completed a career Grand Slam.

A putt for victory on the 72nd hole this weekend, with the world watching, would be a moment to freeze time.

Such a dramatic scene, rather than last year’s sensational but ultimately meaningless bunker shot, would offer the potential for the climactic moment in the movie of Rory McIlroy’s life.

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