AUGUSTA, Ga. – You can only want something so much.
It’s the hackneyed lament of sports psychologists to defer and defuse pressure, be it of the internal variety or otherwise. You know the deal - in with the good air, out with the bad.
The hype is inevitable, understandable even, and as he stands on the precipice of joining the game’s most exclusive club, Rory McIlroy knows this.
He also knows that as intense as his last few trips down Magnolia Lane have been, there is a ceiling on expectations. Or maybe it’s a point of diminishing returns; either way McIlroy’s quest to complete the career Grand Slam this week at the Masters proves the point, however clichéd, that the Northern Irishman can only want to become a significant historical footnote so much.
“I'm an avid fan of the history of the game, and I know a win here and what that would mean and where that would put me in history alongside some of the greatest that have ever played this game,” McIlroy explained. “But I have to try and clear my head of that come Thursday morning and go out and play good golf, hit good golf shots, have good course management, hole putts.”
On this it’s best to defer even the hint of judgment. McIlroy would be, after all, just the sixth player to claim the career Grand Slam. In fact, he’s just the 12th player to move to within a single leg of it.
Of that group, five count the Masters as the missing piece of the legendary puzzle: Tommy Armour, Jim Barnes, Walter Hagen, Lee Trevino and McIlroy.
There are all sorts of ways to microanalyze McIlroy’s plight. Those who consider the Masters the most difficult to win of the Grand Slam foursome will look at his missing green jacket as a liability that may well haunt him late into his career.
McIlroy and many of his frat brothers take a more half-full approach.
“Rory was obviously the favorite [to complete the career Slam], because he gets the first chance. So he would be in the driver's seat,” said Jordan Spieth, one of three players, including Phil Mickelson, who can compete the career Grand Slam this season. “He's always a force. So just being rested, healthy and on the right path meant this year and going forward Rory is Rory. And so he should always be a favorite at any event.”
McIlroy also has time on his side at Augusta National. At 28, he should have plenty of turns around the old nursery before he sails into retirement, and his record at the Masters is nothing short of inspiring.
He hasn’t finished outside the top 10 the last four years, has the fourth-best scoring average around the course and has failed to break par in the final round just twice in a career that has covered nearly a decade.
He’s also still learning, which is no surprise given his affinity for history.
On Tuesday in an interesting moment of self-examination, McIlroy conceded he’s given Augusta National too much respect and not played aggressively enough. He referenced last year, when he tied for seventh place, as an example.
“I shot 72 in that real windy first day, and Charley Hoffman had shot 65,” he said. “I thought I played pretty well, but all of a sudden you're seven back with three rounds to go. I have gotten in my way here before, but I think because I'm a little more comfortable on the golf course and comfortable in my game, I don't think that will happen this week.”
If it sounds as if McIlroy has high expectations this week, it’s because he does. That’s what happens when you start the week fresh off your first PGA Tour victory in a year and enjoy a game that even Bobby Jones would say is perfectly tailored for Augusta National.
That confidence is born from his play this season and his record at the year’s first major. And it’s born from the memories of one of the most painful collapses in Masters history.
In 2011, McIlroy began the final round four strokes clear of the field and was poised to produce the type of dominant performance that would be compared to Tiger Woods’ masterpiece in ’97 when he lapped the field by a dozen.
Things started to unravel on the opening nine, but he turned at 1 over for the day and still in control. That’s when everything went wrong. He made a triple bogey-7 at the 10th after a wild drive left into the cabins, bogeyed the 11th and made a double bogey-5 at No. 12. Like that his title chances were gone, but it would take some time to fully digest what his meltdown would mean.
“I place a lot of importance on what happened here in 2011,” he said. “I feel like it made me a better player, I feel like it made me a better person, it definitely was a character builder. It took me a while to get over it, but I knew if I looked at the big picture it would serve me well in the long run."
Whatever pressure those outside McIlroy’s orbit may invest into this week’s quest to complete the Slam, it will always suffer by comparison to 2015 when he arrived at Augusta National just months removed from his victory at the ’14 Open Championship that set the stage for his final major chapter.
“Coming into the 2015 Masters, that's when I felt like there was a lot of hype coming off the two majors the summer before and world No. 1 and going for the Slam the first time,” McIlroy said. “I nearly built it up in my head a little bit too much.”
That doesn’t seem to be the case this time around. Maybe that comes with getting older and having a few chances to complete the Slam under his belt.
Or maybe it’s just not as big of a deal as it’s made out to be.
“You guys think it's harder on us than it is,” Justin Thomas said. “At the end of the day he's going to go home and he's either going to be a four-time major winner or five-time major winner. That's still pretty good.”