Wednesday 22 May 2019

Paradise lost again for McIlroy as Augusta window closes a little tighter

Rory McIlroy walks up the 18th green during second round play. Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Rory McIlroy walks up the 18th green during second round play. Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Brian Keogh

It's like the Garden of Eden: a lush and verdant paradise that's so utterly beautiful it's easy to forget that demons lurk in every nook and cranny of Augusta National. Every hole is a memorial to great deeds, but also a graveyard for so many dreams.

For Rory McIlroy, a trip down Magnolia Lane brings renewed hope and new mechanisms to cope with the expectation and the difficulty of the test, and ends with another layer of scar tissue and another series of bad memories that must be locked away in the dark recesses of the mind.

"I was leading this golf tournament with nine holes to go, and I just unravelled," he said in 2011.

"It's going to be hard to take for a few days, but I'll get over it."

Eight years later McIlroy looks no closer to solving the enigma of Augusta National, where he plays with a mixture of confidence and dread - like a man driving a car at full throttle only to remember as he takes a curve that he forgot to tighten the nuts on that rear left wheel.

Yesterday he shot 68 to finish five-under with his only round of the week in the 60s, but nobody was watching. The threat of weather disruption meant he started his round on the 10th hole and, just as he was finishing his round, the leading contenders were bunching with a few holes remaining as the drama racheted up.

To call McIlroy's finish an anti-climax would probably be generous.

"The winner of this tournament doesn't just win a major, he becomes a part of the history of the game," Phil Mickelson said.

For all the truth of that statement, it's also undeniable that the weight of history can get into your head.

"This place always seems to have some kind of a ghost waiting around a pine tree or something for me," Paul Azinger once said. "I remember all the places I don't want to be."

Few players drive the ball as well as McIlroy or hit their irons as high and with such consistency. However, that's just a small part of the overall test and it's the putter that often breaks the hearts of those who dream of feeling that cool sensation that comes when a bare arm slips inside the sleeve of a formal jacket in Masters Green.

"You are on edge with every single putt you ever face in the Masters," said Zach Johnson, the 2007 champion.

It was easy to see why as McIlroy's brief flirtation with a third-round charge ended with three bogeys in a four-hole stretch at the end of that cruelly testing front nine.

He had spurned chances to make early headway, watching a little greenside chip at the third swing quickly left, leaving him an equally treacherous birdie putt that he would miss.

Later in the day, when McIlroy had signed for a 71 that was half a shot worse than the field average, Tiger Woods summed up what it takes to "read" Augusta National and avoid suffering one of those gut-wrenching bogeys.

"Just be patient," Woods said. "Very simple. The golf course is certainly gettable, a lot of scores going out there.

"One of the Ams was out there earlier. He was four or five‑under. Patrick (Cantlay) was going low. Tony (Finau) obviously was six‑under through 8. Just be patient. Let the round build. We've got a long way to go."

McIlroy was one-under for the tournament, six shots off the lead as he walked to the sixth tee and you sensed that it was still possible that he could shoot 65 and at least have an outside chance of being a minor threat yesterday.

But he made one of those basic errors that Augusta National does not forget, an undisciplined tug to a left-hand pin that not even a stunning recovery could repair.

With just three feet left for par, he approached it like a man walking to the gallows. There would be no late reprieve from the governor.

They say the Masters does not start until the back nine on Sunday, but due to the early start forced by the forecast for afternoon storms, McIlroy's Masters Sunday began with a 6:45am walk to the practice ground under floodlights, followed by a trip to the 10th tee to start his final round.

An early morning trip around Amen Corner might sound like fun were it not for the need to then play Augusta National's front nine - the graveyard of his hopes.

Rarely has McIlroy looked so flat at a tournament having come into the event with unenviable form - top 10 finishes in every event this season and a gold-plated victory in The Players on a course that was never one of his favourites.

It appeared that his decision to embrace wellness, meditation and the liberating feeling that comes with a new dedication to the power of the mental game had put him in a strong position to complete the career Grand Slam.

But for all his insistence that winning or losing the Masters is not going to change his life, it's not the McIlroy we know.

The full-on, fiery McIlroy of the Ryder Cup might not be the man required to tiptoe through the azaleas and dogwoods, but the meditative McIlroy is not that man either and as his Major drought now stretches ever closer to five years, one can't help wondering if his window is closing.

Irish Independent

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