Friday 23 August 2019

Unusually cautious McIlroy set to wrestle with Masters demons for another year - at least

Rory McIlroy has struggled to get into contention at the 2019 Masters. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Rory McIlroy has struggled to get into contention at the 2019 Masters. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Tom Kershaw

It was a bereft Rory McIlroy who braved a smile in the face of sapping frustration after another fruitless round at Augusta brought damp to any clinging hope he may be able to mount contention on Sunday.

An erratic 71, that featured five bogeys, four birdies and an eagle, was a portrait of introspection and continued wrangling with his own game, rather than the type to send early reverberations around the field. In the end, McIlroy finished some 11 shots behind Francesco Molinari at the end of the third day. Another year’s hopes of completing the Grand Slam discarded onto the scrapheap that grows with swelling angst ahead of his every visit to golf’s most unforgiving expanse.

"It was just one of those weeks, just not quite had it," McIlroy said.

"I have not read anything. I knew my game was good coming in here, I’ve not let any external pressure get to me. I know I can play this golf course, just this week I have not played it well enough."

"It’s not as if anything is glaringly obvious in terms of what’s lacking in my game. It’s just been one of those weeks where I haven’t quite got the momentum that I needed to get."

In the past, McIlroy would always attack this course with unabated aggression. But it was the unfamiliar, timid player who pitter-pattered against Patrick Reed in the final group last year who hoped to slink into the Green Jacket. On Thursday and Friday, he seemed cautious – rather than in the meditative cool he purported – walking the course like a man who acknowledged that the expectation upon him was leeching his strength and came with no respite.

Moving Day brought the final chance for McIlroy to surge into contention as Tony Finau and Webb Simpson posted early markers with a 65 and 64 respectively. But every glimpse of the Northern Irishman’s form was masked in error.

Finally buoyed by a first birdie, three bogies immediately followed as he became wrought by urgency and overeagerness. The 71 would only compound his irritation and blunt him into surrender. McIlroy’s first tee-shot of this year’s tournament carved right into the canopy and, in truth, he’s never been able to clean himself of the pine straw since.

With each passing year, the near-misses and the trauma of that collapse which still evidently linger and scar no matter how cleansed his spirituality, you begin to wonder if McIlroy must win another major elsewhere before he can taste success here. The pressure, otherwise, is simply too great. That being said, a riotous return to his home course for the Open at Portrush in July will leave little reprieve.

Is this the end of McIlroy’s contemplative, at times self-deprecatory approach that’s failed him this week, despite sourcing such a brilliant spell of form in the lead-up to The Masters?

It has become a constant talking point and, ironically, by seeking to distance himself from the spotlight as favourite, the likes of his meditation app only became another stick to beat with. The "I don’t need to win" mantra nothing more than a type of pointed humble. It is patently clear, and has been even before that cratering in 2011, that the 28-year-old is desperate to win this event, no matter how he attempts to shield it.

So the most telling line amid the Buddhist prose was McIlroy’s acknowledgement ahead of this event, not of the pantheon of five to complete their Grand Slams, but those who fell short. The mortals who could never fulfil their legacies and for whom the spiralling desire to do so would become something torturous.

That is a nerve that burrows deep with McIlroy which he is so craven to appease. With each passing year, you sense the task becomes increasingly difficult, a little more thankless and stokes a bane of second-guessing about his own mental state. This week, he arrived so keen to evidence his clear head, yet leaves as cluttered as ever.

Independent News Service

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