Rory McIlroy knew it the moment he calmly two-putted for par at the final hole last July to etch his name into the claret jug. He knew it when he began his PGA Tour season in February at the Honda Classic. And he’ll certainly know it when he motors down Magnolia Lane this week.
He knew the history, he knew the pressure and, most importantly, the world No. 1 knew he had to embrace all the hyperbole and hysterics that are sure to come with his seventh start at the Masters. At the tender age of 25, McIlroy is poised to become the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam.
Among the Northern Irishman’s vast attributes it’s been his keen sense of historical context that has made the build-up to this week’s start something worth embracing.
“After my previous couple of performances in the majors, I can see why it has got like this,” he conceded earlier this season.
“I mean, I'm going for three majors in a row, going for my first Masters. If I win Augusta, I have the chance to hold all four at one point. There’s a lot of storylines.”
And, of course, there is that career Grand Slam, which – at least in many of his frat brothers' minds is the accomplishment that defies definition.
Ask a Tour player to rank the significance of McIlroy’s career Grand Slam potential and it’s almost always followed by a lifeline. How many players have done it?
“Well, there you go. A lot of people played golf over the years,” Lee Westwood said. “It’s really special. I would imagine he is one of the youngest to do it.”
If McIlroy is able to add a green jacket to his legacy this week he will become the second-youngest to secure all four majors, behind Tiger Woods, who was 24 when he won the 2000 Open Championship.
Jack Nicklaus was 26 when he wrapped up the career Grand Slam, Gary Player 29, Ben Hogan 40 and Gene Sarazen 33 and the only one of the five to complete the slam at the Masters, which he won in 1935.
In the hierarchy of accomplishments – Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships, Woods’ “Tiger Slam,” Byron Nelson’s 11 consecutive PGA Tour victories – the career Grand Slam stands apart, at least to McIlroy’s contemporaries.
“You want to talk about the ones that are feasible? The Tiger Slam, winning four in a row, I don’t see that happening. I don’t see winning 18 [majors] happening,” Brandt Snedeker said. “So I think the most feasible and realistic one is the career Grand Slam.
“It shows your game can travel, just because it shows you can play in any kind of conditions, any kind of weather, any course and you are the best at what you do.”
It’s a legacy McIlroy has embraced, dreamed about, actually, since he was 7 years old. The idea of the career Grand Slam became a very real item on his lofty “to do” list when he held off Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler last year at Royal Liverpool to secure the third leg of the lifetime impregnable quadrilateral, which is what New York Sun writer George Trevor dubbed the feat when Bobby Jones won the single-season Grand Slam in 1930.
“It’s phenomenal, I mean at his age, there are only five guys who have ever done it. To be 25 and going for it speaks to the kind of player he is and what kind of game he has,” Snedeker said. “If he doesn’t win this year he’s going to win soon. I cannot see him not winning a career Grand Slam just because of the kind of game he has.”
Whether it’s a vehicle to direct the pressure elsewhere or a nod to the obvious, many contend that even if McIlroy doesn’t complete the career Grand Slam this week he will have plenty of opportunities.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he does it at some point, but to me it’s just a matter of time,” said Zach Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion. “At this point, why should there be any pressure? He’s 25, he has so much time to try and get it. He’s already done a lot. I’d think it would be motivation, not pressure.”
Even McIlroy has embraced this theory. “This isn't going to be the only Masters I play in for the rest of my career,” he said.
That reasoning, however, provides only so much cover from the spotlight. As hallowed as the list of players who have won the career Grand Slam is, it’s equally eye opening to study the roll call of players who fell one major short of the accomplishment.
Phil Mickelson is still a U.S. Open shy, Arnold Palmer never won a PGA Championship, and of Sam Snead’s 82 PGA Tour titles he never hoisted the U.S. Open trophy.
Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Walter Hagen, Raymond Floyd, Nelson and Tommy Armour all failed to secure the fourth and final leg of the career Grand Slam.
“I think we are going to get a great understanding of Rory by the way he handles this,” Butch Harmon said. “We all expect him to have the chance. That’s easy to say and hard to do, but I sure expect him to be there with a chance.”
That McIlroy’s “one more” is at Augusta National also has a good news/bad news element. This is, after all, the same tournament he led by four strokes after 54 holes in 2011 only to finish tied for 15th place.
On a course most observers say is perfectly suited for his power game, McIlroy has been sensational (opening 65 in 2011) and shocking (closing 80 in 2011). The year’s first major has been equal parts feast and famine for McIlory, who has carded more rounds over 75 (six) then he has in the 60s (five).
Ernie Els can empathize with McIlroy’s plight. At 25 years old, Els had won the 1994 U.S. Open and took a three-stroke lead into the final round of the ’95 PGA Championship.
“I blew that. That’s still one I’m looking for and obviously at the Masters I had a couple of chances,” Els said. “I don’t think there are many guys that think that way. Maybe 10 in a cycle that can think that way. He’s obviously one of them.”
With the weight of that reality perched on broad shoulders that graced the cover of Men’s Health magazine this month, McIlroy sets off in search of history. But then, he’s known this moment was coming for months.