Wednesday 21 August 2019

Early exit for Lowry as McIlroy fails to fire at US Masters

Clara man misses third Masters cut while out-of-sorts Holywood ace can't keep pace with charging stars

Shane Lowry reacts on the fifth hole during the second round of the Masters at Augusta National. Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images
Shane Lowry reacts on the fifth hole during the second round of the Masters at Augusta National. Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Just after 2pm local time, Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry walked past Augusta National's great, old oak, moving in different directions.

A portrait of resignation, Lowry made his way to the tenth tee, eight-over par, 81st on the leaderboard and about to over-cut his drive for another bogey. Slumped in a green, fold-up chair, a heavy-set, middle-aged male suggested that he might need another ball. And Shane murmured something along the lines of having plenty.

Rory McIlroy escapes from a green-side bunker at the sixth hole. Photo: AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Rory McIlroy escapes from a green-side bunker at the sixth hole. Photo: AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Humour being the only flak jacket left to him now, he still resisted the offer of a fist bump.

Perhaps a hundred yards away, McIlroy stole a glance at a Masters leaderboard that, contrary to early morning signals, wasn't exactly emitting smoke.

Thursday's leaders had all begun bleeding shots to par, Rory's Ryder Cup team-mate, Francesco Molinari, suddenly the man with a target on his back after coming home with a fine 67. That gave him an eight-shot advantage on the Irishman, now teeing off on one.

A stretch for sure, but not a canyon.

McIlroy would have his chances too but, as the Georgia evening darkened and rain came sweeping in, those chances kept slipping through his fingers. Having turned at one-under for the day, bogeying two, birdieing six, then eagling the par-five eighth, he'd bogey 11 and 13.

And all this while Augusta's antique leaderboards took on a Hall of Fame glow, Molinari soon joined at the top by fellow Major winners Jason Day, the recovering Brooks Koepka and - eventually - two more in Adam Scott and Louis Oosthuizen.

Another, Dustin Johnson, sat just one behind. Tiger was on a riotous charge.

And Rory?

He was six back until those back nine bogeys; taking two to escape a bunker on 11; finding the creek on 13. All around him the valley rumbling with momentum then. Just not his.

For Lowry, Heaven's door had long since closed.

An opening 78 left him needing birdies on yesterday's card, but they were simply too slow to materialise. He'd make three in the closing six holes but a 73 was still four shots more than he needed.

Two days around this place without really laying a glove on Alister MacKenzie's masterpiece will leave its scars on Lowry, his third missed cut in four Masters.

Frustrated

His birdie on 13 yesterday was only his second of the week and, though others followed on 16 and 17, he'd bogeyed a hat-full (11).

So Lowry cut a naturally frustrated figure afterwards, sighing: "The damage was done yesterday because going around here, trying to chase a score... it's the last place in the world you want to be doing that.

"The last few months haven't been ideal. I suppose one win in eight starts... if you look at it like that. Just every easy hole, I hit a poor tee-shot or did something stupid. I made a lot of silly mistakes. But it's important to remember the good things.

"This place is tricky. It takes every part of your game being as good as it can possibly be to do well around here. For someone like me, I think I need to be fully on to compete here.

"But there is a long year ahead. There's definitely no panic buttons yet. I am in a good place at the moment though obviously the scores are not there. I just need to have a look at, 'Am I trying too hard?'"

McIlroy might now be tempted to ask himself a similar question after his 71.

The way he spoke on Tuesday sounded intensely calculated and programmed. He seemed oddly keen to invite us into a place that should probably have stayed private. It's clear he has a strong, inquisitive intellect, but it was hard to see the benefit in taking us there. In exploring his so-called "path of introspection" as if discussing technical equipment.

To be fair, he'd been playing beautiful golf in this new head-space, but Augusta was always going to squeeze a different gland.

And stuck in heavy traffic on the honky-tonk nightmare that is Washington Road on Thursday morning, it was impossible not to wonder what he might be doing or thinking at that moment. Meditating? Juggling balls? Hanging out with the professorial Dr Clayton Skaggs? Reading?

He'd alerted us to "some great stuff out there" on devices, like the Calm app, Headspace, "a lot of great, guided meditations out there, whether it's for trying to go to sleep or you're trying to concentrate or just get your head in the right place."

But why were we even talking about this?

In inviting the world's media into that space, McIlroy took us away from the game and into the spin-cycle of psychology. Rory 'the person' protesting that he was entirely separate from Rory 'the golfer', yet baring his soul to all this mental exploration two days before his latest push for history.

Only Augusta can offer McIlroy the career Grand Slam and that has to make it the most stressful venue in golf for him right now. He can't talk his way out of this reality. He can't suspend the attendant din with philosophy learned from a book.

Funny, around the time he was leaking Thursday's opening tee-shot into the same trees that swallowed his Sunday drive a year ago, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were in the interview room being asked to put themselves in McIlroy's shoes as he attempted to join them as career Grand Slammers.

They both pretty much said they couldn't.

Nicklaus recalled: "When I won the British Open in '66, I don't even recall anybody even mentioning it. It wasn't until probably ten years later and we were I think at Westchester and somebody said, 'Oh Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan and Gary Player and you have won all the four Majors; can we have a picture of the four of you together?' That was it. I never thought anything about it."

Player said that that photograph was his first real moment of Grand Slam awareness too. It was a different world back then. No technology. No social media. Both men said that they hoped McIlroy could join their illustrious group, but it was clear they did not envy him.

He got a shot back with a rolling 25-footer on 16, followed by a great escape for par on 17, but this tournament and those Grand Slam hopes looked to have ghosted away from him. Again.

The Masters, Live, Sky Sports 7.0 / BBC2 7.30

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