AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rory McIlroy may have discovered the reason why he doesn’t yet have a green jacket, why he remains one leg shy of the career Grand Slam, why each year he leaves Augusta National – a course that so perfectly suits his game – scratching his head.
Because he needs to relax.
That’s not a word often associated with the Masters, but McIlroy sounded Tuesday like a man who is still trying to strike a balance between being prepared and being loose for his shot at history.
And so he is shaking things up this year at the Masters.
Just about everything, it seems.
He switched to a cross-handed putting grip last month.
He didn’t make a single scouting trip to Augusta in advance of the tournament.
He is using only one ball in practice rounds, instead of hitting multiple shots from the tee boxes, fairways and closely mown areas around the green.
Heck, he is even skipping the Par-3 Contest, out of superstition.
“I really feel like I play my best golf when I’m more relaxed, when I’m having fun out there and I’m not overdoing it or not overthinking it,” McIlroy said. “It’s a very special event, and obviously it’s different in its own way, but I don’t want to treat it any differently.”
But it’s not that simple. The Masters will always be the event on his calendar that is circled – it’s the only piece remaining for him to become just the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam.
McIlroy’s wholesale changes are the product of what transpired last spring, when he arrived at Augusta with so much hype and hoopla following his banner year in 2014. Sure, he finished fourth last year, his best result in seven tries, but he got lapped by Jordan Spieth after going 3 over for his first 27 holes.
“I think part of that,” McIlroy said, “was having so much expectation and thinking of the Grand Slam and thinking of the Masters and thinking of all this where I needed to just take a step back and relax and go out and try and play my own game.”
That part creates pressure, too. He possesses an explosive game that many expect will produce multiple Masters victories. He can hit the ball high. He can land the ball softly. He has a good touch around the greens.
“He can emasculate a golf course,” Tom Watson said.
“You would think this was a golf course that I can definitely win on,” McIlroy said. “I know that. I just haven’t quite been able to get myself over the hurdle.
“Am I surprised that this is the last one left? Probably, yeah.”
So why hasn’t it happened?
The danger at the Masters, more so than any other tournament, is to over-prepare, to try every possible shot, lie and angle, to line up practice rounds with veterans and to ask too many questions. McIlroy played too tentatively his first few years, his focus more on where to avoid than where to aim. The information overload also conflicted with his carefree attitude on the course when he’s in top form.
Phil Mickelson, who didn’t break through at Augusta until his 12th attempt, said the temptation for players is to focus too much on the course and not enough on their own game.
“It’s much better to be ready with your game,” Mickelson said, “because you’ve got to execute no matter how well you know the golf course.”
Which is why to play his best, McIlroy says it’s imperative that he backs off, that he doesn’t overthink, that he doesn’t try too hard.
After heading to Augusta early each year to reacquaint himself with the course, he didn’t play his first round here this year until Monday, when he set up a match with Chris Wood. On Tuesday, he played a game with Andy Sullivan, Jamie Donaldson and Bernd Wiesberger, and he used only one ball, even if it meant hitting out of pine straw or a fairway bunker.
“I’m just trying to play it more like it is a tournament round,” he said.
With so much pressure to complete the Slam, it would seem that McIlroy’s appearance at the Par-3 Contest would be a welcome reprieve, a chance to have a few laughs and fun before the most famous golf tournament on the most stressful course in the world commences.
But McIlroy has switched up his routine for that, too, saying that he wanted to “get away from the spotlight a little bit.”
That’s understandable, of course, but McIlroy also has the last tee time Thursday (2:01 p.m. ET). He’ll have to wait 24 hours after his last practice round to tee it up in the tournament proper, which is plenty of time to, well, sit around and think about the Slam and the Masters and that elusive green jacket.
“I feel like I’ve got everything I need to become a Masters champion,” he said, “but I think each and every year that passes that I don’t, it will become increasingly more difficult.”
Especially if he makes all of these changes and winds up with the same disappointing outcome.