TO It could be reasonably argued that the big impressive moment of 2022 was not produced by a champion. Rory McIlroy’s club toss and leap of joy as his ball rolled, rolled, rolled toward the hole from a greenside bunker on the 18th during last year’s Masters resonated far beyond the grounds of Augusta National. McIlroy’s reaction was that of a carefree, exuberant child rather than a world-famous sportsman.
Scottie Scheffler won the 86 Masters, but four-putted in doing so. Justin Thomas chilled out at home in a playoff to claim the US PGA Championship. Matt Fitzpatrick’s fairway bunker hit on the 72nd hole of the US Open was sensational and Cameron Smith breezed through the Open countryside on a St Andrews Sunday.
However, it’s McIlroy’s Georgia moment that has graced the highlight reels throughout the long winter months. It served as a reminder of why it’s still such a captivating display.
“It was the first year in a long time that I had left Augusta feeling very happy for the week,” he says. “Yeah, I started too many shots from behind on Sunday, but … when you get into scenarios like that, I didn’t know what Scottie was doing, so there’s still hope that something could happen.
“He played very well and ended up winning, but going up that hill and going to sign my card on a Sunday, the dominant emotion has been disappointment.
“That was the first year in a long time that I felt joy and happiness. I appreciated the moment and where I was instead of thinking about what I hadn’t done. It was almost like going through some kind of mental barrier. I wanted a 90-hole Masters instead of 72. I wanted another shot right away.
“I used that as a catalyst last year. My main performances were much better than in the previous years. Teachers it was a springboard. I could have won them all after that.”
Three close shaves would become completely irrelevant if this week, and surprisingly his 15th Masters tournament, the one tournament he would cherish more than any other returns. McIlroy’s prize would not just be the Green Jacket, but a career grand slam.
Second place in 2022 was Augusta’s highest finish for the 33-year-old; that he closed with 64 his best score in 18 holes on the course and the lowest final round in the history of the tournament. Just don’t suggest to McIlroy that he may have cracked the Masters code or that just the smell of azaleas will get him through this year’s event.
“That’s a dangerous way to think,” he says. “You always have to be, not quite ‘on guard’, but all Augusta requires is discipline. The moment you get too confident or walk away from that discipline is the moment Augusta will bite you. You have to be so on your game.
“Look at the two most successful players in Augusta history, Tiger and Jack. They built their game around patience and discipline.” Messrs. Woods and Nicklaus have 11 Masters between them.
McIlroy cannot adequately assess what life as a Masters champion would be like. It is obviously a case of great unknown. He has received unfair criticism in the past for attempting to contextualize professional glory alongside personal satisfaction. The reality is that there is no more dedicated or motivated player in the game.
McIlroy simply has a greater appreciation of the big picture than most and is never afraid to say so. Any feeling that a Masters win doesn’t inspire you is dead wrong. “It’s not that at all,” he says. “I would love to win the Masters. If I finished my degree and hadn’t put on a green jacket, would there be a pang of regret? 100%, absolutely.
“But I have other things in my life. A green jacket pales in comparison to seeing my daughter happy, spending time with my family. I will never lose that. My life won’t automatically improve if I win a green jacket.
“I don’t think the people around me looked at me differently because I had won another tournament. That is the most important. Would I feel differently about myself? Maybe a little. I’m hoping that maybe it’ll free me up somehow, as in, ‘Let’s do it all over again.’ Let’s win a second Grand Slam. I hope that’s my way of thinking instead of: ‘I’m done.’ However, “perhaps” and “hope” imply the difficulty of analyzing something so important that it is yet to happen.
The element of the circus of the masters will be provided by the appearance of a batch of LIV rebels, including at the annual dinner of champions. When the last men’s major, the Open, was played, Smith had not yet jumped off the PGA tour. “There’s not that much uncertainty,” says McIlroy. “They have done their thing, most of the players have done something else.”
January closing scrap between McIlroy and Patrick Reed in Dubai was especially captivating in the exaggerated perception of good versus evil. McIlroy has been a strong supporter of the PGA and DP World Tours against the LIV threat. “My problem with Patrick is not that he joined LIV,” says McIlroy. “There are other things.”
It’s important to remember that McIlroy revealed in the Middle East that he was subpoenaed by Reed’s attorney on Christmas Eve.
Still, McIlroy knows what generates interest. “If Cam and I end up doing it in Augusta, are there any additional elements for the viewing public? 100%. But for Cam and me, it’s just going to be about trying to win the Masters. That’s what it boils down to.
“I’ve been asked about pairing up with any of the LIV guys. We’re all enough in our own heads, trying to be prepared and trying to win possibly the biggest tournament in the world that the other things pale in comparison to the achievement of winning a Masters.”
That achievement was closer than ever for McIlroy on April 10, 2022. He returns to the hallowed turf with a springy step and a renewed hope in his heart.