Will Rory McIlroy ever win The Masters? He can’t be considered an all-time great unless he does

I followed Rory McIlroy for his final round in another hugely disappointing Masters, asking the patrons if the four-time Major Champion would ever win the Career Grand Slam.

 

Jack and Tiger may disagree, but Rory will never win The Masters if Augusta’s patrons’ views are anything to go by. I won’t lie, I’m starting to agree with them.

 

As I walked Augusta National, waiting for the Northern Irishman’s usual late, but ultimately fruitless charge up the leaderboard, the patrons almost exuded sympathy for Rory’s plight around here. Like parents, desperately willing their children to do their best in the school play or sports day, knowing full well they’ll forget their lines or trip over their own feet. There was no anguish when a putt didn’t drop, just a saddened sigh that reflected the slump we’re now so familiar seeing in the 34-year-old’s shoulders.

 

McIlroy’s week was summed up on just the second hole of the day. A great drive and wonderful approach left him a 15-footer for eagle. McIlroy even got a read on the putt from Joaquin Niemann, who had to ask for his playing partner to move his marker, such was the similarity. But he missed low. Then he missed again. An eagle turned into a par in three short strokes.

 

 

As it slid by a huge roar echoed through the trees. An unmistakable roar. A Tiger roar. Body broken and off the back of his all-time worst Major round on Saturday (82, +10), Woods was enduring another tough day. But he’d just saved par on the 17th and the galleries were going wild. Wild for a man who was DFL, but who has five Green Jackets. The crowds still flock to get a glimpse of an all-time great – for many, THE all-time great – as he walks these famous fairways in iconic Sunday red (sorry, Sun Day Red).

 

Meanwhile, McIlroy has tapped in for his three-putt par. Exasperated he gesticulates and talks to caddie Harry Diamond as the patrons muster a ripple of encouragement. Jon Rahm, himself enduring a disappointing week, looked on from the nearby 7th green as his Ryder Cup teammate walked onto the third tee, acknowledging his friend as he passed. Post-round Rahm will hang on to put the Green Jacket on its next recipient, comforted by the fact he’ll be coming back here for a lifetime. McIlroy will drive out of here to his private jet relieved that it’s all over for another year, that winless run dragging on.

 

It’s a week that could excite him but the weight of expectation (both his and the fans’) has become almost unbearable. Not only is he trying to win the Career Grand Slam, he’s trying to end an almost decade-year wait for another Major. Tiger has more Majors to his name than Rory since the end of 2014 and he’s spent a fair bit of that time under the surgeon’s knife, learning to walk again, having his off-course misdemeanors revealed to the world, or getting his mugshot taken.

 

“I think I can win one more,” a defiant Woods had told us earlier in the week. He didn’t, of course, but what McIlroy would give for one.

 

As a child, Rory idolized Tiger and grew up wanting to be him. They came to be competitors. Now they’re close friends and the most respected voices on the PGA Tour. The difference? Well, aside from Tiger’s 11 additional Majors, 58 extra PGA Tour wins, and 561 weeks at World No.1, it’s how their early years at Augusta National have seemingly shaped their futures.

 

Tiger won leading amateur in 1995, turned pro, and missed the cut in 1996. In ’97 he’d learned from his mistakes and stunned the world, romping to a 12-shot victory and becoming the youngest (and first non-white) winner of a Green Jacket. Dominance at Augusta followed. His starts to 2013 read T8, T18, 5, 1, 1, T15, T22, T3, T2, T6, T4, T4, T40, T4 before injury and misdemeanours caught up with him. Still, held together by surgeries, Woods rallied to pull that incredible victory out of the bag in 2019, pulling on his years of knowledge and positive experiences. He remains the last man to defend a Green Jacket successfully and this year, seemingly more broken than ever, he took the record for the most consecutive cuts made at The Masters.

 

McIlroy’s first Masters start came back in 2009 – his first Major as a pro. Then 19 he, like Woods on debut, impressed, finishing T20 at two-under-par. A year later, like Woods, he missed the cut. Twelve months after that he, like Woods, dominated the first three days. 65 (-7), 67 (-3), 70 (-2) to lead by four entering Sunday. By the 10th tee he was clinging to a one-shot lead. What followed has seemingly shaped his relationship with Augusta National ever since. McIlroy’s tee shot cannoned off a tree and into the forest, forcing him to take a drop near the adjacent cabins – unchartered territory in Masters’ history. He hit another branch as he sought to find his way back to the golf course, took two more shots to reach the green and made a triple-bogey 7. A three-putt at 11, a four-putt at 12, and a shot into the water at 13 completed the self-destruction. He shot 80 (+8) for a share of 15th place, 10 shots behind winner Charl Schwartzel. Woods finished T4 after a final round 67. What McIlroy wouldn’t have given for that?

 

He showed incredible resilience to bounce back just weeks later, winning, no, dominating the US Open at Congressional Country Club to lift his first Major. McIlroy set or tied 12 US Open records on his way to victory, including the championship’s lowest-ever score at 16-under-par 268. Many assumed he’d arrive at Augusta the following year and erase the bad memories. He finished tied for 40th and has never truly bounced back here.

 

 

Tiger remains convinced that Rory will slip on the Green Jacket. “He’s too good,” he says. Jack Nicklaus is in the same camp. But he remembers that Tom Watson, his old adversary and good friend was also “too good” not to win the Slam. He didn’t. Unlike McIlroy, it was the US PGA that eluded him. If ever a Major would elude you, I’d suggest most players choose that one. Rory has two of them and I’d be willing to bet good money he’d hand both Wanamaker trophies back to feel the lining of the Green Jacket against his skin.

 

So what do the patrons watching McIlroy think his legacy will be if he never achieves that moment? Could he still be considered an all-time great?

 

“Not yet. Not unless he wins here. All the greats win here. Even if he gets another Major he needs this one.” A fair assessment. 

 

“If he is then we have to say Brooks (Koepka) is. He has more Majors.” Can’t argue.

 

“He’d be remembered but he can’t be considered among the greats without a Green Jacket.” Agreed. 

 

“The all-time greats come out here and start the tournament every year. As it stands, Rory won’t even be playing here in a few years.” A sobering thought.

 

“No, he won’t be in that category. I thought this could be his week. I thought these two (McIlroy and Nieman) might be the final group before the tournament started.” He won’t have been alone.

 

“I don’t care, I f*cking hate Rory. He’s a tw*t.” Ok, they weren’t all well-considered replies.

 

 

But mostly, they were fair points. Masters Champions can play this tournament until their games and bodies can no longer cope with the rigor of Augusta National. Even then they’re welcomed back for the Champions Dinner, the Par 3 Contest, and to roam the grounds, Clubhouse and Champions Locker Room in tournament week. Their names and photos adorn the walls forever more. Their Green Jacket lives here, to be worn only during the Masters. As it stands, the enduring memory of Rory McIlroy at Augusta is disappointment.

 

Ultimately the course does not suit Rory McIlroy’s game. He finds it tough and has never truly been able to stamp his authority on it, especially if conditions aren’t perfect. There’s a theory that because McIlroy is from Portrush he thrives in the wind and rain. He doesn’t. None of these players truly do because, ultimately, they don’t do it often. It becomes a battle of attrition when the temperatures drop, the skies open and the gusts get up. Because McIlroy started his golfing journey in Northern Ireland doesn’t mean that now, some 25 years later living in Jupiter, Florida, he can draw much from those days. His swing is different, his mind is different, and the pressure is different. A pressure unlike any other.

 

For what it’s worth, I don’t believe Rory McIlroy will ever win at Augusta. Another Major is possible, but they come thick and fast after Augusta and it takes time to shake off the disappointment. The quality of competition gets better every year, making the challenge even harder. He’s a great, but an all-time great? Maybe not. I hope he proves me wrong.

 

What does Rory say?

 

“I still have a little bit of work to do in my game,” said McIlroy. “It hasn’t been my year this year but I’m going to keep coming back until it is my year. My game felt okay for the most part – I struggled a bit on Friday – but the conditions were so tricky that when you give a couple of shots away it’s tough to make a tonne of birdies”.

 

 

Rob specializes in the DP World Tour, PGA Tour, LIV Golf, and the Ryder Cup, spending large chunks of his days reading about, writing about, and watching the tours each month.

 

He’s passionate about the equipment used by professional golfers and is also a font of knowledge regarding golf balls, golf trolleys, and golf bags, testing thousands down the years.

 

 

Gideon Canice

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