AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rory McIlroy has a naturally busy mind.
More painter than perfectionist, he seems to require a depth of understanding, be it about the golf swing or Manchester United’s offensive attack scheme, that most professionals eschew.
Consider his take on the swirling winds that make Augusta National arguably the game’s most demanding test on days like Friday when the gusts seemed to swirl from every direction.
“This wind is coming out of the southwest, there's a lot of holes like 13, 14, 15, for example. [No.] 14 should be dead off the right, and 15 should be dead off the left,” McIlroy said. “But if there's a tiny variance in the wind either way, that's a massive difference. That's a 20-yard difference.”
Unlike others who cling to platitudes as an outlet, McIlroy is rarely prone to clichés. It’s just not his style. Why use 10 words to dismiss something when a deeper dive with 100 words would paint a more accurate picture?
There’s been times throughout his career when the Northern Irishman has perhaps been too transparent for his own good, when brutal honesty has left him exposed to criticism, however unfair and unfounded it might be.
This week, however, is different. It has to be. For McIlroy, the Masters comes with far too many moving parts to allow for a real-time unpacking.
There can be no examination of what a victory this week would mean to his legacy. No visits to 2000-and-someday when he’s introduced as the sixth player to win the career Grand Slam, golf’s most exclusive club. No trips down memory lane to those times when he appeared poised to slip into a green jacket only to have that chance slip away.
Not this week.
Instead, McIlroy has opted for the simple and stoic. Experience has taught him it’s the only way. So as he made his way around Augusta National on a breezy day his mind drifted to a common theme.
“I'm constantly having a conversation with myself about staying in the present and just one shot at a time and all the cliché stuff that you hear about,” McIlroy said after a second-round 71 that left him in a large group within three strokes of the lead. “I'm trying to get up there and hit the best shot that I can, and after that, I'll go about what's the best way to hit the next shot and the putt.”
This from the same man who once launched into a lengthy explanation – virtually unprompted no less – about why Floyd Mayweather Jr. would defeat Conor McGregor in last year’s must-see title bout.
The same guy who once outlined in emotional detail why Arnold Palmer paved the way for players of his generation, has defaulted to the simplest form of communication.
“Stay patient. Birdie the par 5s. Keep your putts on the high side of the hole. Hope for the best,” he said when asked his game plan for Augusta National, which is widely held as the game’s most exacting test.
McIlroy has learned through trial and error why this is the best way. In 2015, he motored down Magnolia Lane having won the Open Championship the previous summer to set the stage for his first attempt to complete the career Grand Slam. He would end up finishing fourth that week, a half dozen shots behind Jordan Spieth.
“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 this week. “I nearly built it up in my head a little bit too much.”
McIlroy’s record at Augusta National is nothing short of inspiring. He’s finished inside the top 10 each of the last four years and had one arm in the green jacket in 2011 when he rode a four-stroke advantage into the final round only to close with an 80.
He can overpower Augusta National like few others, taking lines most players would never consider, and as his victory two weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational proved his work with Brad Faxon has turned him into a much better putter than he’s given credit for.
But it’s none of those things that makes McIlroy appear as if he has an appointment in Butler Cabin on Sunday afternoon. It’s that measured, almost detached, demeanor that makes him such a compelling figure this week.
“I feel like I don't have to swing my best to play my best golf, but if I can think the way I'm thinking right now and stay in that mindset, that's when I've been able to produce my best results,” he said.
If that mindset seems a bit overly simplified it’s by design. The alternative has far too many trap doors and there’s far too much on the line this week to indulge in pointless musings.
McIlroy will return to his normally curious self in time, it’s who he is and what makes him one of the game’s most endearing figures. But for the next 36 holes he’ll relay on competitive blinders and clichés to show him the way.