Journey Rory McIlroy is on will ease Masters pressure - but current best still might not be good enough

Put Rory McIlroy in front of a microphone a week or even a month before the annual pilgrimage to Augusta and simply wait.
Rory McIlroy works with new coach Pete Cowen during a practice round prior to the Masters Picture: Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesRory McIlroy works with new coach Pete Cowen during a practice round prior to the Masters Picture: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy works with new coach Pete Cowen during a practice round prior to the Masters Picture: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The subject of completing golf’s grand slam is on its way, you can guarantee it. You just have to be patient.

This year is no different than the previous six, with the Northern Irishman waiting since 2014 to add the final Major and that elusive green jacket to his much-revered roll of honour.

If he does it, he’ll join an exclusive group that has Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods only among its members.

But perhaps, just maybe, it’s a topic of conversation that requires greater patience these days.

Its place in the pecking order is slipping – just like the 31-year-old’s world ranking.

The now world number 12 – his lowest placing since 2018 – was put in front of the media on Tuesday prior to his opening rounds alongside Jon Rahm and Xander Schauffele.

Yet talk of the grand slam only emerged at the tail end of the conversation.

There might be a belief, at a subconscious level at least, that past spurned opportunities were the best chances for McIlroy to secure his spot alongside Nicklaus & Co.

Focus among the media and fans, has undoubtedly turned to the big-hitting Bryson DeChambeau and what he can achieve in the game.

Meanwhile, at present, the US does appear to have a crop of outstanding players who all seem capable of becoming Major champions for the first time – or adding to those titles they have already bagged.

Eight of the current 10 players in the world are American.

There’s also, more tellingly, the matter of McIlroy’s 2021 form – and his decision to call upon the services of Pete Cowan in a bid to sort out his swing.

His eight tournaments to date have resulted in zero wins. Indeed, you have to go back to November 2019 for his last victory at the WGC-HSBC Championship.

There have, of course, been three top-10 finishes since the turn of the year and five in the top 20 – not fantastic but better than most.

However, his failure to make the weekend at The Players Championship – a title he was defending – along with a 6&5 defeat against Ryder Cup team-mate Ian Poulter en route to an early exit at the WGC Matchplay attract the biggest headlines.

Despite averaging 319 yards off the tee – the third longest on the PGA Tour – McIlroy has admitted his attempt to match DeChambeau’s power has been a contributing factor to his form, with his search for speed proving detrimental, he confessed, to his game.

Cowan has subsequently been brought in as a result, as the Ulsterman attempts to correct the problems he has inadvertently developed.

‘It's basically just about trying to understand the body movements a little bit more and sort of understanding why certain shots happen and how to fix those on the fly,’ McIlroy told the media assembled at Augusta National this week.

‘If you have a better understanding of what you're doing, then you can start to manage it better, even if things don't feel quite the way you want them to.’

The four-time Major winner is clearly focused on correcting those wrongs and getting back to where his natural talent has taken him in the past.

Yet his admission that it’s a ‘journey’ rather than a quick fix adds weight to a delay in talk of that grand slam target.

‘I'm trying to see the big picture here,’ he added.

‘I'm obviously focused on this week, but it's bigger than that. It's a journey and it's a journey to try to get back to playing the game the way I know that I can play the game.

‘Obviously this week is very important, but I'm still looking beyond that. I'm just at the start of a journey here that I know will get me back to where I want to be.’

With the Augusta greens expected to be firmer and less sympathetic to less-than-accurate approaches than November’s staging of the event, there's further reason to believe this might not be McIlroy’s year.

He currently sits 157th in proximity to the hole from approach shots on the PGA Tour, with an average leave of 38 feet.

Meanwhile, from between 75 and 100 yards, the former world number one is 198th, leaving an average putt length of 23 feet from that distance.

Yet for all the conspiring circumstances that suggest McIlroy’s latest bid for a much-sought-after green jacket will fall short, there still remains plenty of reasons why he should not be written off before a ball is hit.

Six top-10 Masters finishes in the past seven years is a good place to start, with three of those resulting in spots inside the top five.

And even before his nightmare back nine on his way to imploding on the Sunday in 2011, finishing 10 shots back when he went into the final day with a four-shot lead, there’s enough evidence to suggest that Augusta National is a place McIlroy can showcase his talent.

The number of patrons who follow him every step of the way around the 72-par, 7,768-yard course each day is proof that expectations are high and something special is more or less guaranteed.

The ease with which McIlroy can eliminate the trees located left on the dog-leg par-five 13th still causes amazement among the Georgia regulars, even though it’s now expected of him.

And it’s that type of hitting, bravery, length and wizardry – especially on the par fives – that still makes him one of the favourites.

He might not be the outright favourite this time around – a cross he’s had to bear all too often ahead of the first Major of the season – but he’s still highly thought off to be in the mix and in the conversation among the punters, the so-called experts and his peers.

‘From my perspective, I wasn't trying to change anybody else's game,’ said DeChambeau when asked on Tuesday about McIlroy’s attempts to match is big-hitting.

‘I was just trying to play the best golf I could.

‘I knew there would be people there to be influenced. I didn't think it would be Rory.

‘I think he's a pretty smart, talented individual that knows how to play the game potentially better than me.

‘It's honouring and humbling hearing him say it's a difficult task.’

DeChambeau, Dustin Johnston, Justin Thomas and the rejuvenated Jordan Spieth are among those currently ahead of McIlroy in the betting for the 2021 green jacket.

That will no doubt help ease the pressure and deflect some of the attention off his game, which could possibly play into the Co. Down ace’s hands.

He admits he’s more relaxed this time around and has plenty of good memories to draw upon to aid his latest bid.

Admitting that his build-up to the Masters has been different this year than previous visits, McIlroy said: ‘I didn't come up here to play any practice rounds last week. I just flew in Sunday.

‘Played 18 yesterday (Monday), nine today (Tuesday). I'll probably play nine tomorrow (Wednesday). That's maybe a little different from previous years.’

He added: ‘The good memories – they're the ones you want to keep and you want to hold onto.

‘Whether it's the great stuff from 2011 or I guess the charge I put in the Saturday in 2018,

‘But you have to take your lessons from the not so good stuff, as well.

‘I played in the final group in 2016 with Jordan on the Saturday. Didn't go quite the way I wanted it to.

‘Obviously there's been another few rounds here where I've sort of put myself behind the eight-ball not being able to get any momentum.

‘But they are all learning lessons and you just try to go out there the next time and do a little bit better, and that's all I can do is go – out there and try my best.’

At his best, McIlroy is more than capable of ending his seven-year wait to complete golf’s grand slam.

It remains to be seen, though, if his current best will be good enough this year.

You suspect it might not be. But it will take a brave man to bet against him.