Rory McIlroy, prepping for the Masters and the burden of the career grand slam


ORLANDO, Fla. — Five Sundays from now, the struggles at Bay Hill will be but a faded memory, a result that will have no impact either way on whether Rory McIlroy wakes up on Easter morning with a green jacket in his sights.

Sure, it stings to let an opportunity get away as the No. 1-ranked player in the world did at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, going from tied for the lead to six back within a matter of four holes — twice making double bogeys.

And there have undoubtedly been some shaky final rounds as part of his resume, perhaps more a product of putting himself there so often. McIlroy shot 76 to tie for fifth, four shots back of winner Tyrrell Hatton.

But there is no denying McIlroy’s run of top-notch golf over the past year, one that was given a big boost by his Players Championship victory that helped turn the narrative from a lot of close calls into a PGA Tour Player of the Year season that saw him win three times — including the Tour Championship — and then add the WGC-HSBC Champions in the fall.

With the biggest tournament of the year to date this week at TPC Sawgrass and the Masters not far away, talk will inevitably turn to McIlroy’s chances at Augusta National and his ability to complete the career Grand Slam.

It is a storyline that is in its sixth year, one that began following his 2014 victory at The Open. That gave him three of the four major championships, and he’d add a second PGA Championship title a month later. McIlroy also won the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA.

Career slam talk commenced immediately, and McIlroy has been chasing that green jacket ever since, logging some top-10 finishes, but truthfully not coming as close as he did nine years ago — when he was the 54-hole leader, triple-bogeyed the 10th hole and shot 80.

Inevitably, the questions surface, and McIlroy does his best to entertain them, basically going the route that there is a lot of golf to be played prior to the Masters.

“For some people it starts the Monday they arrive at Augusta,” McIlroy said when asked this week when the process for the year’s first major begins. “For some people it started in January. I think it’s different for everyone. For me, what I realized is I can’t make things too big in my head. So if I started to gear up for Augusta in January, by the time Augusta got around in April my head would be absolutely fried.

“So I try to push it out as late as possible. I’ve got four tournaments to play between now and then and my biggest concern and my top priority are those four tournaments.”

The second of those four is this week’s Players, which is the next-best thing to a major championship. And the last is the Valero Texas Open, which is played the week prior to the Masters on a course that couldn’t be any more different than Augusta National.

That is going to great lengths to put the Masters out of your mind.

But for McIlroy, that is probably the best approach. Augusta National has teased, more than tormented but never quite yielded that Sunday opportunity he craves. Sure, he’s been top 10 in four of the last five years. And he played in the final group with Patrick Reed in 2018, only to fall out of contention quickly.

That career slam burden — like it has been for Phil Mickelson with the U.S. Open — is real.

“It’s definitely taken me time to come to terms with the things I’ve needed to deal with inside my own head, and I think sometimes I’m too much a fan of the game because I know exactly who has won the Grand Slam and I know exactly the people I would be putting myself alongside,” McIlroy said last year. “So that’s maybe a part of that; if I didn’t know the history of the game and I wasn’t such a fan, it would win in my favor.

“But that’s not me. It would be a massive achievement. It would be huge. But again, I can’t think of that it that way. I just have to go out and play the golf course the way I know that I can play and repeat that for four days. And as I’ve said, hopefully that’s good enough to have the lowest score that week.”

McIlroy will undoubtedly get grief for his play on Sunday, when he made just two birdies and had those two front-nine double bogeys. He played the weekend with just three birdies and was 5 over par over the final 36 holes.

There’s no shame in that, really. Bay Hill was a brutal test, as there was just a single score in the 60s over the weekend and only four players finished the tournament under par. McIlroy had said Saturday he needed to avoid big numbers, and he had two of them — the difference possibly winning and falling back.

So call it a missed opportunity or another high finish. And yet, it was a top 10 and another instance of putting himself there again, which speaks to the reasons he is No. 1 in the world.

Going back to his Tour Championship victory in August, McIlroy has played in 11 worldwide events and has 10 top 10s, including two victories. His only finish outside of the top 10 was a tie for 26th at the Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland. Nine of those finishes have been in the top-5.

Taken back further to his last missed cut at The Open, and McIlroy has 12 top-10 finishes in 14 worldwide events.

“There’s a lot of similarities between the start of this year and the start of last year,” McIlroy said. “A lot of chances not converting, but knowing the game’s pretty much there. So just keep knocking on the door and go up to Ponte Vedra tomorrow and work on a few things. And get back at it again.”

Soon enough, it will be Masters week, and McIlroy will be part of the first-major spotlight. So far, he’s done nothing to diminish the glare.

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