He was on the back foot from the off in the 83rd Masters after missing the first fairway on Thursday. It’s been a case of history-chasing Rory McIlroy himself smothering any glimmer of momentum since then. “I’ve just made too many mistakes,” he said after completing his third round at Augusta National.
McIlroy, who came here with high hopes of claiming the Green Jacket he needs to complete a career grand slam, made an eagle and four birdies in his third circuit. That was the good part. Alas, the 29-year-old also signed for five bogeys, including one to finish. It added up to 71 and a one-under-par total.
“It’s not as if I’m playing bad golf,” he insisted. “I mean I’m under par for the golf tournament, but I’m just not enough under par. 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.”
He only hit five fairways in this effort, two less than Thursday. This wasn’t the week he wanted his driver to let him down. And not just because it’s normally such a lethal weapon. “The rough this year is about a quarter or half an inch longer than it usually is, and it’s just hard to get control of your ball out of it,” he said. “And I just haven’t driven it in the fairway enough to have control going into these greens.”
McIlroy, who is making his fifth attempt to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in completing the full set of major titles, started the day seven behind the leaders and reckoned he needed something like two 66s over the weekend to give himself a chance of winning. He rolled in a 30-footer for a 2 at the fourth only to give that shot back at the next short hole – the sixth – before finding himself in reverse after tugging his drive at the seventh then finding sand.
He was bunkered again at the ninth, this time seeing his ball plug in the face. With one foot in and one foot out of the trap, he just managed to get it out, but another dropped shot meant he was out in 38 when he’d been looking for 33. He badly needed a spark at the start of the inward journey and got it by almost holing his approach, pitching it right beside the cup from 185 yards.
Three-putting from just off the edge, sending the first one racing past then hitting the hole with the next one, at the 11th was another of those momentum-killing moments and, after being unable to convert a good opportunity at the 12th, his shoulders were slumped. This wasn’t how he’d envisaged things going as he chalked up seven top-10 finishes, including a win in the Players Championship, in the build up to his latest date with destiny.
His tee shot at the 13th clattered into the trees but, after hacking out from the pine needles, he managed to make birdie. A glorious approach then set up an eagle-3 at the 15th, rolling in a 15-footer after his playing partner, Australian Marc Leishman, had coaxed in a long curler before him. Much-maligned, his putter did the business again from a similar distance at the short 16th then made it three in a row at the next, though for a par save on this occasion after finding tree trouble from the tee. It was a deep bunker he found at the last, from where he had no chance, really, of getting to the green and, as had been the case in the first round, it wasn’t the finish he’d wanted.
“I just tried to play a good round of golf,” he said afterwards. “It wasn’t about chasing. It was just about going out there and executing the shots that I needed to. And I felt for the most part today that I did maybe a little bit better than the previous two days. But I just haven’t been getting much out of my round. I’ve been making the birdies, and doing the things that you need to do around here. But, if I’ve missed a green, I haven’t got it up and down or put myself out of position.”
According to Nicklaus, McIlroy’s wife, Erica, could play a key role in helping him finally get the job done here eventually by shielding him from things that could affect his mental state coming into this particular week.
Referring to his own better half, the 18-time major winner said: “Barbara always used to have the newspaper. She would get it in the morning. She would see an article, and she threw the newspaper away so I didn’t see it. If there’s all that kind of stuff, if you’re smart, you probably shouldn’t read all that stuff. You just move on and go do your thing and prepare yourself and go play.”
Nicklaus, a huge McIlroy fan, added: “I think if I were in Rory’s position, I would be looking at trying to win the Masters, not trying to finish a grand slam. I think to win the Masters, that’s enough to worry about. I do think it is probably undue pressure put on fellas.”
Adding his voice on the subject, Player said: “If I had to pick somebody I would like to see join the five of us, it would be Rory, and it would give golf, which needs a big boost as the rounds are down, a big boost, so we would love to see Rory win here one day.”
McIlroy hasn’t been alone in seeing this week have the life sucked out of it. Justin Rose, the world No 1, didn’t make it to the weekend – the first time he’d missed the cut here in his career. No-one saw that coming. One of Rose’s main strengths is driving. Not on this occasion, though. He hit five out of 14 fairways on Thursday and seven on Friday. “I played terribly this week,” said the Englishman.