Because of where the Masters tournament falls on the golf calendar – like Christmas in April with azaleas subbing for poinsettias – it is built on anticipation more than any other tournament.
No matter how compelling or how good what has happened to this point has been – think Adam Scott and Jason Day both winning consecutive starts – everything is filtered through the Masters lens.
Why is Jordan Spieth suddenly erratic?
Is it Day’s turn?
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Does Phil Mickelson have another one in him?
Even as Scott was winning twice last month, he was talking about maintaining his form for this week.
That’s what the Masters does. It takes over hearts and minds and dreams. Years ago, a player named Burt Yancey wanted to win the Masters so badly he built clay models of all 18 Augusta National greens in his basement so he could study them.
Which brings us to Rory McIlroy, who is playing for a bit of immortality this week at Augusta National, chasing the one major championship he’s yet to win.
Only five players – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods – have won all four professional majors in their careers. It’s one club more exclusive than Augusta National. McIlroy is a green jacket away from joining the club.
Five years ago, he led the Masters after each of the first three rounds only to shoot 80 on Sunday in an utter collapse. Last year, McIlroy arrived here at the center of golf’s universe, having won the past two majors in 2014, chasing a third straight and the grand slam. McIlroy was 3-over par through 27 holes last year and despite playing his last 45 holes in 15-under par, his sparkling weekend dulled in the gleam of Spieth’s dominating victory.
This year, because others have stolen a few decibels of his thunder, McIlroy begins this Masters in a slightly different place. He’s No. 3 in the world, but he hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since the Wells Fargo Championship last year, and McIlroy is just one character in what feels like an ensemble cast, sharing the stage rather than owning it as this Masters begins Thursday.
He saw Spieth win the Masters and U.S. Open last summer, then flirt with three in a row at the British Open while he rested an injured ankle. He saw Day win the PGA Championship and two playoff events, then pick up where he left off this spring. It stings.
“I’d be lying if I said those guys having success doesn’t motivate me. Of course, it does,” McIlroy, 26, said. “I don’t want to be left behind. I want to be a part of that conversation. I’m clinging on at the minute. ...A few wins will change that.”
Put all the top players at their best and I’ll take McIlroy. His blend of power, imagination and aggressiveness can set him apart, and when he gets on a roll – as he did in the summer of 2014 – McIlroy is reminiscent of Woods in his prime.
McIlroy has had moments this year, but a Sunday 75 kept him from winning the Northern Trust Open in California in February and he squandered a four-stroke lead on Sunday at the WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami in early March. A pair of 75s at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month in Orlando, Fla., offset rounds of 67 and 65.
It’s not unlike how McIlroy was playing two years ago. The question is where he takes his game from here.
“It was always getting here (in 2014) and once it all clicked, it was off and running,” McIlroy said. “I’m just waiting for that moment again. There would be no better time than this week for that to happen.”
McIlroy intentionally adjusted his preparation for this Masters, the goal of making the week easier than it has been. He did not come up early to practice. He did not play in the par-3 event. He played one ball in practice rounds, preferring to play matches on Monday and Tuesday rather than hit multiple shots from different spots.
While waiting for his 2:01 p.m. tee time Thursday, McIlroy intends to relax, his mantra this week. He’ll get a workout in and probably spend time working on the jigsaw puzzle set up in the house he’s renting this week.
Then McIlroy will go about finding the missing piece in his career resume.
“I feel like I’ve got everything to become a Masters champion,” McIlroy said. “But It think each and every year that passes that I don’t, it will become increasingly more difficult. So there’s no time like the present to get it done.”