“It’s not just something you turn up and win, it takes a monumental effort mentally.”
When it comes to the Masters, few players can speak to the suffocating weight of expectation as well as Rory McIlroy.
While a final-round meltdown denied the Northern Irishman the chance to emulate Tiger Woods by slipping into his first green jacket at the age of 21, McIlroy showed enough craft and guile around Augusta that week to suggest his time would come soon.
Of course, as has been well-documented, while he has conquered the US Open, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship, the Masters has become his white whale.
The narrative around McIlroy at the Masters changed in 2015. After capturing the 2014 Open, he arrived at Augusta that year with three out of the four majors in his trophy cabinet.
And while he has posted six top-10 finishes in the time since, he has never truly challenged down the stretch at Augusta on a Sunday afternoon.
McIlroy’s form in recent months would suggest that is unlikely to change, too. After missed cuts at the Genesis Invitational and Players Championship – missing the weekend’s play at the latter by 10 shots – the 31-year-old – whose last win came in November 2019 – was dumped out of the WGC-Matchplay at the group stage.
Rory McIlroy and Paul McGinley.
Just prior to his appearance at the matchplay, McIlroy began working with renowned coach Pete Cowen in an official capacity. And while the Yorkshireman will aid McIlroy’s swing and technique, Paul McGinley believes the biggest challenges facing the former world number one at Augusta this week are mental, not technical.
“There are obviously some huge hurdles that he has to overcome mentally,” says Sky Sports golf expert McGinley.
“Only five players have won the grand slam in the history of the game and he’d be joining what is an incredibly elite company should he go on and win the Masters.
“That’s mentally a massive change. I don’t know if he’s getting any help to get over the line with that. It’s not just something you turn up and win, it takes a monumental effort mentally.
“The other guys that have won the grand slam, I think it only took three times to complete it so they did it quite quick whereas Rory’s going for his seventh attempt, so it gets tougher.
“Like Lee Westwood trying to win his first major, it gets tougher as the years go by, or Greg Norman trying to win the Masters, it got tougher as the years went by.”
McIlroy has on numerous occasions fielded questions about his quest to join Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player and Ben Hogan as the only players to have secured a career grand slam, and the unrelenting intensity of the pressure has often been reflected in a slow start to his Masters week.
McIlroy and slow starts.
In last year’s tournament, which was played in November as part of golf’s Covid-affected schedule, McIlroy stuttered to an opening 75, leaving him 10 shots adrift of the early pacesetters.
That he regrouped to return rounds of 66, 67 and 69 to secure a sneaky top-five finish added credence to the theory that he produces his best golf when the spotlight is trained elsewhere (last year it was firmly fixed on runaway winner Dustin Johnson, for example).
McIlroy’s underwhelming starts are not exclusive to the Masters, of course. As per golf statistician Justin Ray, he is +28 in the opening rounds of majors since 2015, but -64 in the second, third and fourth rounds.
That’s a staggering difference and McGinley feels as though McIlroy must approach this week’s Masters with a clear strategy on how to block out external pressure.
“They’re the big hurdles that Rory faces and because we all talk about him being as talented as he is, that brings a lot of expectations,” said McGinley.
“Every major he plays, there are expectations on his shoulders and he feels it, I really do feel he feels it, he feels the external expectations and feels it internally.
“That’s another big hurdle he has to jump and has to have a strategy around.”
‘Life gets in the way’
McIlroy’s bid to become a Masters champion has also impacted by the emergence of new stars.
Since he last won a major in 2014, Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau have all enjoyed their fair share of the spotlight, while the likes of Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa and Tyrrell Hatton all go into this week’s tournament above him in the world rankings.
But while McGinley doesn’t feel as though McIlroy is running out of time in his pursuit of golfing immortality, the 2014 Ryder Cup captain believes a busier schedule – namely McIlroy’s business interests and family life – will only make it more difficult.
“Life gets in the way. Your focus doesn’t remain the same as you get older. You get married, you become a father, you have business interests. -you don’t have that pure, driven ambition that you’d have earlier in your 20s.
“Look at Bryson at the moment, nothing is in his way. There are no complications and his focus is purely around golf.
“Life gets in the way, but it’s not a bad thing – it’s the evolution of a golfer. Rory has a lot of interests, he has a curious mind outside of golf, and that’s all wonderful, but it does take away from your drive and focus.
“It’s about compartmentalising all the different aspects of your life, and I do feel as though that’s a big challenge for Rory at the moment.”
Watch all four rounds of the Masters live and exclusive, as well as previews, highlights and archive footage on Sky Sports The Masters and NOW.