A decade ago, a strutting, bouncing, curly-haired kid from Northern Ireland carried a four-shot lead into Sunday at the Masters — and then imploded with a nowhere-to-hide 80. To say that the 31-year-old husband and father hasn’t recovered is too simplistic, because he won his very next start at a major championship, because he was the No. 1 player in the world as recently as last summer, because his talent is obvious and enormous.
But McIlroy now has a history at Augusta, and it isn’t entirely palatable. It is annually relevant, because if he were to win there, he would join the most elite group in the history of the sport: those to win all four majors. That’s golfing royalty: Tiger and Jack and Hogan and Sarazen and Player.
That’s the list now. And after McIlroy’s opening 76 Thursday — a full 11 shots off the lead of Justin Rose — it almost certainly will remain so Sunday night.
“Hopefully,” he told reporters afterward, “feel a little more comfortable tomorrow.”
Hopefully. McIlroy long has been one of golf’s most appealing characters. He is introspective and honest. Where others put up a shield, Rory opens a door.
So if he arrives at Augusta with a game he can’t quite find, he says he has a game he can’t quite find. More than that, he’ll explain how and why. The truth is something precious few players would own up to: He watched the innovative if eccentric Bryson DeChambeau remake his body and rethink the sport — gaining weight, hitting shots farther than any elite player has ever hit them, winning a major in the process.
It affected McIlroy’s swing and his head. Last month, in explaining that he had focused on length — very much to his detriment — he said, “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t anything to do with what Bryson did at the U.S. Open.”
McIlroy’s not a mess. But he’s not ready to win the Masters, either. At his pretournament news conference Tuesday, McIlroy talked extensively about what he’s searching for in his game, about working with legendary instructor Pete Cowen while still keeping his lifelong coach, Michael Bannon, in the fold. He talked about altering his preparation, about eschewing a pretournament visit to Augusta and instead just flying in Sunday. He frankly addressed whatever was asked.
“Look,” he said. “ … I’m trying to see the big picture here. I’m not all focused on — I’m obviously focused on this week, but it’s bigger than that. It’s a journey, right? And it’s a journey to try to get back to playing the way I know that I can play the game.”
Right now, it’s the way he used to play the game. He won the most recent of his four majors — get this — seven years ago. For the golf cognoscenti, who before he turned 20 had fitted him for multiple green jackets, that’s not good enough. It felt, at times, like his game was on trial, and he had to serve as his own defense attorney.
“I feel like there’s been a lot of looking back to try to go forward instead of just saying, ‘Okay, this is where we are,’” McIlroy said. “‘This is the present. This is what you’ve got to work with. Let’s go forward from here.’”
So Thursday’s first round was both predictable because of his current form and surprising because of his nearly limitless abilities. He made three consecutive bogeys on the front side, the last at the par-4 seventh, where he drove it left, then picked out a white-haired man across the fairway as a target for his approach. He wanted to start it at that man and turn it over.
“It was a perfect shot,” McIlroy deadpanned. “It was dead straight.”
It didn’t turn over. It nailed the man — who happened to be his dad, Gerry.
“Maybe I’ll autograph a bag of frozen peas for him,” McIlroy said.
Good humor, even when he’s grinding. There is so much amateur psychoanalysis in golf, it can become stifling. McIlroy always has endured it, and politely. His low point Thursday had to be at the par-5 13th, a birdie hole if there’s ever been one for a player of McIlroy’s length. He had a 6-iron in for his second shot. He was 4 over at the moment. A birdie could get him going in the right direction.
Instead, he smothered it. It ended up in that tributary. A likely birdie, even a possible eagle, became the sixth bogey of his day. He is one of the best players in the world, and he was being exposed as a work in progress.
“Any time you’re working on things with your swing, it’s going to feel very different,” he said. “But it’s not as if I haven’t done these things before. I think that’s the thing. You get into these bad habits, and that feels normal. And then you get it back into position where I’ve been a million times before, and it just feels different.”
Because McIlroy is automatically considered a contender in any major, he is asked ad nauseam about his approach. Does he focus on them more? Does he treat them like just another week? Just as he morphs his swing and his game, he is also willing to learn and adapt how he thinks. It often feels like he’s searching.
To that end, he told a story Tuesday. A few weeks ago, he went to visit Tiger Woods, convalescing after the horrific February car accident that threatens to end his career. McIlroy was impressed by the display in Woods’s family room of the trophies from his 15 major championships. He said he asked Woods about the location of the trophies from the dozens of regular ol’ PGA Tour events he had won.
“I don’t know,” Woods replied.
As he drove away, McIlroy couldn’t shake that exchange.
“I’m just thinking to myself: How easy must that have felt for him if all he cared about were four weeks a year?” McIlroy said. “The other stuff must have been like practice. That’s a cool perspective to have, right?”
There’s Rory, allowing us to ride shotgun as he considers his mental approach to majors on a drive home from a legend’s house. That’s reason enough to root for him. In a sport full of corporate automatons, he will sit down and tell you what’s on his mind, even if it’s a lot. May there come a time when he doesn’t have to answer questions about the only major he hasn’t won. He deserves it, considering how he has handled them for a decade — and counting.