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McIlroy still trying to clear Masters 'mental' hurdle

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One of the more fascinating aspects about observing Rory McIlroy is watching him answer questions. Unlike many athletes, McIlroy actually listens to every question.

He never responds quickly, because he actually thinks about the question before answering. He will pause, tilt his head and then nod when he’s decided what to say.

Sunday, after he finished a roller-coaster final round at the Masters – seven birdies and six bogeys en route to a 1-under-par 71 – McIlroy was asked a simple question: Assess your week.

Most players react to that sort of broadly general query by looking at the bright side, trying to find the glass as close to half-full as possible. McIlroy didn’t go there.

“I was in great position going into the weekend and I just didn’t play the golf I needed to play when it really mattered,” he said. “I felt very tentative, played very defensively, felt very similar to how I played the last round at Doral playing with the lead.

“You’re just trying not to make mistakes instead of attacking and making birdies. Trying not to make mistakes is not my game. That’s not what I do.”

It absolutely isn’t what he does. And, it’s pretty clear watching him play at Augusta National that he is still trying to figure out the puzzle that the golf course can be. Five years ago, he made it look easy for three rounds, bolting to a four-shot lead after 54 holes before a final-round 80 dropped him to 15th place.

He admitted that day that he had played defensively, trying to protect the lead and said he had learned a lesson from it. Perhaps he did. Unfortunately, he hasn’t had the chance to put that lesson to use, since he hasn’t led at the Masters since then. He’s finished in the top 10 the last three years: T-8; 4th; T-10, but that’s not what he’s after. He wants to complete the career Grand Slam and he wants to do it soon. Before it becomes, ‘a thing.’

The question now is this: Has it already become ‘a thing?’ Clearly, McIlroy has given that some thought.

“I’ve been in position (at the Masters) 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,” he said. “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.”

Players would usually rather try to play standing on their heads than admit something may be grinding on them mentally. McIlroy isn’t like that. Prior to the start of the tournament last week, he readily admitted that he had been distracted by all the talk about completing the career Grand Slam a year ago and that had led to a poor start. He was 3-over-par for 27 holes, before playing the last 45 holes in 15 under. The rally got him to fourth place but never within shouting distance of the runaway train that was Jordan Spieth.

This year, he did exactly what he needed to do for 36 holes, hanging in under the sort of windy conditions that he doesn’t like. Five years ago at the Open Championship, he sent much of the British media into a tizzy when he admitted after the third round at Royal St. George’s that he didn’t like playing in adverse conditions. For someone from Northern Ireland to make such an admission was akin to someone from Kentucky saying they weren’t wild about college basketball. Or a New Yorker saying he wasn’t crazy about thin-crust pizza.

But, in spite of the windy conditions, he walked to the tee on Saturday afternoon one shot out of the lead and paired with Spieth in the final group. This should have been a challenge that McIlroy relished. He’s made it pretty clear that he has no desire to cede his spot as the world’s best player to Spieth or Jason Day. He’s always played well in the past when paired with Spieth and here was his chance to teach the kid a lesson or two on golf’s grandest stage.

Except he didn’t do that. He fizzled completely, hitting the ball all over the place, never making a putt and finally trudging up the hill to the 18th green to finish with a 77 that included zero birdies. Rory McIlroy playing 18 holes at Augusta National without a single birdie?

Impossible. Except, on Saturday, not only possible, but true.

He talked Saturday about still believing he could win thanks to the fact that Spieth’s bogey-double bogey finish meant he was only five shots back. As it turned out, he was only one shot behind Danny Willett, the man who ended up with the green jacket on Sunday, so if he had been able to go low, he still could have won.

But he didn’t go low. Every time he made a birdie, a bogey followed soon after. And so, he spent the day running in place. He began tied for 11th place and finished tied for 10th.

McIlroy won’t be 27 until next month. Plenty of players haven’t won a single major at that age – Phil Mickelson, remember, was 33 before he won one – but McIlroy doesn’t want to be plenty of players. He wants to be the player. He wants to be No. 1 in the world again and he badly wants the career Grand Slam.

The fact that he’s not in denial about the pressure he feels at Augusta is probably a good thing. So often, players try to claim they aren’t bothered by something when clearly they are. Colin Montgomerie repeatedly said it didn’t bother him not to have won a major. “If I never win one, I’ll still have had a great career,” he often said.

He did have a great career. And he never won a major.

McIlroy has already won four majors and his spot in the Hall of Fame is assured. But that’s not enough for him. He is still trying to become a more consistent putter and he very badly wants a green jacket. One with the Augusta National crest on it.

He still has plenty of time to take care of that one hole in his golf resume. There’s little doubt, though, that with each passing year he is more and more aware of the need to get it done – sooner, rather than later.