Thursday 19 April 2018

Vincent Hogan: Old failings condemn McIlroy to two hours walking around the most beautiful cemetery on the planet

Paradise lost as putting woes end Masters dream

Rory McIlroy cuts a frustrated figure during his final round at Augusta. Photo: AP
Rory McIlroy cuts a frustrated figure during his final round at Augusta. Photo: AP
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

There are no gentle ways to unravel on a Masters Sunday and Rory McIlroy knows better than most the loneliness when tension cauterises the brain and Augusta turns its back on you.

It happened again yesterday, maybe not as monumentally as the nightmare that befell him in 2011, but this was still uncomfortable to behold. On a day that had smoke rising off the giant scoreboards, McIlroy never got to the pitch of business. Par took a pounding yet, after a birdie that should have been eagle on hole two, Rory really couldn't lay a glove on fate.

He was reduced, thus, almost to a weary curiosity, roars rising up out of every canyon of this holy place, just never where he needed them.

His final round of two-over-par 74 was an eternity removed from the kind of arithmetic required to claim a green jacket and he had the courtesy to putt out on 18, allowing Patrick Reed have the glory to himself.

Read more: Masters champion Patrick Reed asked about complex family feud in post-win press conference

Maybe the urgent semaphore of the tee marshall on hole one and that sound of a ball caroming into the trees above our heads brought an instant preview of what was coming.

Rory was perhaps 50 feet off target, yet rescued the hole with his nine-iron finding a handkerchief of daylight through the pines.

It was a miraculous act and drew great, guttural roars of approval from a gallery palpably on his side against Reed.

But that missed short putt on the second would begin an ugly sequence on the front nine that, essentially, condemned him to two hours walking around the most beautiful cemetery on the planet.

Maybe some courses are there to be bullied, to submit to brazen coercion. But Augusta? On Masters Sunday? That birdie on two made it seem possible, but ragged short putts have been the bane of his efforts to claim the career Grand Slam here.

At high velocity, McIlroy looks capable of outrageous achievement. But the tranquillity of a putting green can turn his hands to wood. His problems always seem to be with the humdrum.

By the time he reached the turn here, he'd bogeyed three and seen 2015 champion, Jordan Spieth, overtake him as Reed's chief pursuer. Rory had already missed five putts inside eight feet and, if that career Slam was coming his way, there'd need to be a dramatic reset of his emotional balance.

Trouble is, part of McIlroy's appeal is that he doesn't readily find a compliant setting.

He's never felt a need to accommodate our taste for labels, abhorring the appetite to pigeon-hole. His style on a golf course is faithful to that independent personality. Just when it might be easy and self-serving to play a game of politesse, he snaps back with an independent streak.

When playing percentages might have its attractions, he opens those shoulders.

Rory waves no flag, plays up to no stereotype. When people wanted him to be an Olympian of specific colour, he concluded that the decision wasn't worth the hassle. Some of his contemporaries sidestepped Rio in 2016 to the melodramatic soundtrack of keening violins, but McIlroy cut it dead with a kick.

None of his childhood dreams involved standing on a medal podium and he simply wasn't of a mind to indulge the pretence that they had. On the contrary, he expressed resentment at being coursed by outside prejudices, seeing in the shallow chime of jingoism an implicit attempt to bully.

Cold honesty is seldom popular when those arguments narrow, but that's what he chose.

It makes him hugely impressive, easy to respect. But Augusta National has him in a bind now. Only here, only in Masters week, is that prize of a career Grand Slam open to him. But he came home empty yesterday. And Reed, dressed conveniently in black sweater against Rory's white on the putting green beforehand, proved the man of the moment.

Which duly wrecked our taste for parable.

Even Americans find it a challenge to warm to Reed, once dismissed from the University of Georgia golf team amidst allegations of cheating and stealing from team-mates. Reed himself writes that chapter in his history as a consequence of "alcohol violation".

The college itself simply declared that, for all his talent, it was "Patrick as a person we chose not to associate with."

But golf courses don't bend to a man's record with the Commandments and Reed has a street-fighter's disposition in battle. The world saw as much at Hazeltine in the last Ryder Cup when, McIlroy having nailed a putt at eight from 60 feet, Reed drilled home a pugnacious response from 20.

Just as Rory found himself bellowing "I can't hear you!", Reed rammed a walnut down his throat.

That's his instinct, his disposition in battle. You take a swing? He'll come back with a windmill. And so, having dropped two shots to McIlroy in the opening two holes yesterday, he was four clear by the turn, no longer even looking Rory's way to see where the danger lurked.

And that had to be galling for McIlroy who even now, even this last week chasing a place amongst the gods of golf, encountered the rattly court of social media communicating almost as much bile as support towards him.

Think about that for a moment. Try reconciling the altitude he competes at - indeed the broadly elegant grace with which he does so - with the toxicity that often howls around him.

It's true, there's no obligation to be deferential around great sports people, but simple respect shouldn't be conditional unless abject conduct invites it. That's never been a complication with McIlroy.

For three days here, he delivered everything that history demanded. But Reed's closing 71 was enough to catapult him six shots clear of Rory at the end. Essentially, he flew to another parish.

McIlroy often references Jack Nicklaus' line about "finding the balance between ambition and sanity" and he'll certainly have to do that in the coming weeks.

Maybe the lost narrative of his 2011 'collapse' was just how quickly the atmosphere around the final two-ball began to fray young nerves. Charl Schwartzel, after all, chipped in for birdie on the first hole, then holed from 130 yards for eagle on the third. In this place of all places, that had to feel like the deities choosing.

Here, they did so again, just less dramatically. Reed simply stayed solid, It was enough.

Irish Independent

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