It’s a glorious day in Orlando, Florida, and Rory McIlroy is thinking about the missing piece that has exercised his mind at this time of every year since 2015. How to become the sixth golfer, and only the second after Tiger Woods since 1966, to complete the career Grand Slam.
Over the last seven years, he has tried pretty much everything. He has gone to Augusta with pointy elbows and head held high, as a man should when he’s ranked the best golfer in the world.
He’s tried to play it down and pretend it’s just another week and just another tournament. Last year he went as a man confused, his game wrapped in riddles he couldn’t solve.
Rory McIlroy is again aiming to be the sixth golfer to claim the career Grand Slam at Augusta
His last major triumph came eight years ago at the 2014 US PGA Championship in Kentucky
And so where do we find him this time, still only 32 but eight years removed from his last major win? A man riven with torment? The contented look on his face says it all — just the opposite.
‘Do you know, after such a passage of time and after all the things you describe, if I had to sum it up now I’d say that I’ve finally made my peace with it,’ he tells Sportsmail.
‘I’m still trying all that I can to win it, of course. I know it would be unbelievable, it would put my legacy on a different level and I’d stand with the best who have played the game.
‘But if it doesn’t happen, I won’t be beating myself up about it any more. I’ve reached the stage where I can live with such an outcome.
‘Why? Because on a personal level, I’m blessed to live my life in a way that I couldn’t have dreamed about growing up. Winning the Masters wouldn’t actually change it in any way.’
Rory at peace is a lovely contrast to the haunted-looking creature this time last year. ‘It’s fair to say I was lost,’ he says, starkly.
‘In fact, you’d probably have to go back to 2013 to find the last time that my game was in such disarray.’
It culminated in only the second missed cut of his Masters career, and the first since 2010. ‘I should never be missing the cut at the Masters, given the size of the field and how I feel the course suits my game,’ he says.
‘But I had a two-way miss going and if you’re aiming up the middle of the fairway and you don’t know which side you’re going to miss on, you’ve no chance at Augusta. I played horribly and deserved to miss the cut. I went home and knew there was a lot of work to be done.’
How did Rory, with so much game, find himself in such a dark place? Go back another 12 months. Four weeks to the 2020 Masters, he was the world No 1 and he was flying. Then the pandemic struck.
Four weeks to the 2020 Masters, he was the world No 1 – then the pandemic struck
When the game reopened three months later, he could play but he had no access to Michael Bannon, the coach who had overseen his game since he was in short trousers, who wasn’t able to travel from Northern Ireland.
McIlroy, a social creature by nature, started to listen to other voices in the locker room. He turned to Pete Cowen last spring, a straight-talking Yorkshireman he had also known since his formative days, and with a list of coaching achievements as long as your arm.
It would be wrong to say their six months together was a failure. McIlroy won two tournaments. But his abject display at the Ryder Cup sent all sorts of alarm bells ringing in McIlroy’s head. It was time to rediscover his roots.
Six months on, and with Bannon back in harness, he’s looking far more like the player of old. ‘I don’t want to say how I feel now is the complete opposite of this time last year, but it must be pretty close,’ he says. ‘There are no doubts there now. Everything feels really comfortable in my game.’
It wasn’t that way even a few weeks ago, when a back-nine collapse in Dubai led to an astonishingly poor shot at the 18th that cost him victory and left him furious.
The Northern Irishman has spent countless hours with Michael Bannon on a golf simulator
On his next outing in public, he talked about the therapeutic effects of visiting Northern Ireland on his way home for the first time in two years. What he didn’t talk about was what he did when he wasn’t catching up with relatives and introducing them to his 19-month-old daughter, Poppy.
The countless hours spent with Bannon on a golf simulator, ironing out the discomfort he had felt with his swing in Dubai. No wonder McIlroy gets annoyed when people describe him as a natural, as if all he needs to swing the club on a model plane is show up on the first tee.
‘They just worked solidly for three days, not worrying about where the ball was going, just working on the sensation of a square club-face at impact,’ says an insider. ‘It was the best thing Rory could have done. He felt so confident at the end of it.’
One aspect of McIlroy’s game that never looked natural until recently was his putting stroke, but that has been rebuilt and radically improved under the shrewd eye of former American Ryder Cup player, Brad Faxon.
McIlroy’s putting stroke has been rebuilt and radically improved under the eye of Brad Faxon
MATSUYAMA’S AUGUSTS DEFENCE IN JEOPARDY
Hideki Matsuyama has suffered an injury scare a week before his defence of the Masters.
The world No 12, who became the first Japanese male major champion when he won by one stroke at Augusta last year, withdrew from the Valero Texas Open yesterday with a neck problem.
It is thought to be a recurrence of the injury that ruled him out of the Players Championship last month.
Matsuyama, 30, pulled out after playing nine holes of his second round in San Antonio and is now a doubt for the Masters.
‘They only meet half a dozen times a year and even then they’re mostly chewing the fat,’ says one of Rory’s team. ‘But what a difference. I’m not even nervous any more when Rory is standing over a 6ft putt. Brad has taught Rory how to putt. Just as Michael owns Rory’s swing, Brad owns his putting stroke.’
There are still areas of concern. Has his wedge-play improved sufficiently to land the ball on the size of a bin lid, as you must at Augusta? Then there’s the great imponderable, that mental burden that kept legends from completing the career Slam, from Sam Snead to Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer to Lee Trevino. Bluntly, can he deal with the hype?
It might be even harder if you’re a golf nerd like Rory, who knows all too well what it would mean.
‘I’m not sure I would agree with that,’ he counters. ‘I do love the history of the game. I appreciate it, and I love it when young kids speak and think about me the way that I think about those five guys that I am trying to join. That part of it is very cool.
‘But it’s all about putting that out of your head, whoever you are. Go out and play the tournament and try to not make it bigger than it is. Try to get out of your own way. That’s it.’
Twelve months on from the worst performance of his Masters career, McIlroy looks in the mood to be a contender again.
Off the course his contentment is reflected in the fact that he’s never afraid to take the lead on contentious issues, whether it be his strident opposition to Saudi sports-washers or even taking one of the legends of the game like Phil Mickelson to task.
He has become the game’s foremost spokesman, and an admirable, eloquent one at that
He has become the game’s foremost spokesman, and an admirable, eloquent one at that.
‘This is the best I’ve seen him in a long time,’ says the member of his inner circle. ‘He was a lost man last year but look at him now. He’s comfortable in his own skin again and happy to say his piece. He feels that obligation to the game to make a stand.’
Can he still make a stand on a Sunday afternoon at a major, and particularly the one coming up next week? Rory at peace is a far better bet than Rory in torment.