At just age 27, Rory McIlroy is already feeling the weight of not having a green jacket around his shoulders.
And it’s not just what winning the Masters Tournament would mean for the Northern Irishman.
It’s what it would mean for his career – he’d be the sixth player to achieve the career Grand Slam (the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship).
McIlroy has four majors (he won the PGA twice). With a Masters win, he’d join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as career grand slammers.
“It’s a motivation, to be able to put your name alongside those five guys,” he said. “But I think each and every year that passes that I don’t, it will become increasingly more difficult.”
This is the third year that McIlroy has come to Augusta with a chance at the career slam, thanks to his 2014 British Open victory.
“I sort of feel a little bit like what Phil (Mickelson) goes through when he goes to the U.S. Open, but at the same time I haven’t finished second at Augusta six times and he’s finished second (that many times in the U.S. Open). So I can only imagine what goes through his head when he turns up at a U.S. Open. But, yeah, winning Augusta is difficult enough, but I think that’s the most important thing, like you want to win the tournament that week, you just want to beat the guys that you’re playing against and if you do that, you know that all this other great stuff comes along with it.”
McIlroy was fourth in the 2015 Masters and tied for 10th last year.
“I feel like I’m a good enough player; I feel like I’ve got everything I need to become a Masters champion,” said McIlroy, who also had a top-10 finish in 2014 with a tie for eighth. “It’s the biggest tournament of the year for me, for obvious reasons, and I’ve never made any secret about that. I’m very open about that. It is.”
McIlroy has 13 career wins on the PGA Tour (and won the FedEx Cup last year) and nine more international victories, so he knows he can beat the field in the 81st Masters. However, he’s coming to Augusta National with fewer rounds under his belt than he hoped after a fractured rib kept him out of action from mid-January to early March, which he downplays.
“I’m playing against the same guys that I’ve beaten before at the biggest tournaments in the world and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to do it again,” he said. “So that’s my mind-set going into it. If I can keep that mind-set and try to just keep it as simple as possible, and keep it fun, I think that’s the thing as well, if I can keep it somewhat fun: you’re going and playing Augusta, you’re getting to play Augusta, you’re getting to play at least six rounds around there. Who else gets to do that? That’s pretty cool in itself.”
He has had shots at winning the Masters – his best came in 2011, when he had a four-shot lead after 54 holes, shot 80 and finished in a tie for 15th place.
Last year, he was one shot off the lead through 36 holes and played in the final group of the day in the third round. A 77 took him out of contention.
“I was in a great position going into the weekend, and I just didn’t play the golf I needed to when it really mattered,” said McIlroy, who failed to make a birdie in the third round. “I’ve been in position before and I haven’t got the job done when I needed to and I don’t think that’s anything to do with my game, I think that’s more me mentally and I’m trying to deal with the pressure of it and the thrill of the achievement if it were to happen. I think that’s the thing that’s really holding me back. ”
He admits he played too tentatively in the third round last year and it backfired.
“That’s not the way I play,” McIlroy said. “And it’s almost as if I need to go out here and not respect the golf course as much, to go out there and not really care where I miss it or where I don’t miss it, everyone talks about at Augusta you need to miss it here, you need to miss it there, it’s all about your misses, but I would rather hit it right on line than miss in the right place. So, yeah, I just, I was a little too careful out there.”
He returned to the free-flowing style the next day and shot 71 to finish tied for 10th.
McIlroy has been in the 60s just once in the first round of the Masters. He has opened with 72, 74, 65, 71, 72, 71, 71 and 70. He said a good opening round for him would be around 70.
“I think it’s imperative to get off to a great start here, a good start. You look at a lot of Masters champions in the past, they have been right up there from the first day,” McIlroy said. “I think it’s important to get a good 36 holes under your belt and play well. That gives you confidence going into the weekend, as well.”