AUGUSTA, Ga. – Traipsing through the azaleas, lost in a sea of pink, Rory McIlroy was on the verge of another indelible Masters moment on the 13th hole.
As many times as his embarrassing visit to the cabins gets replayed each spring, it was his hooked tee shot on the dogleg-left par 5 that officially doomed his chances in 2011. With his ball heading toward Rae’s Creek, he slumped over his driver, dropped his head into the crook of his elbow and looked like he wanted to cry. “Once I hit that tee shot left on 13,” he said that day, “I was done.”
In dozens of interviews over the years, including one on Saturday night, he has claimed that the disastrous, final-round 80 at Augusta National was a significant turning point in his career.
“It was the day that I realized I wasn’t ready to win major championships,” he said, “and that I needed to reflect on that and realize what I needed to do differently.”
Turns out he was ready to win majors just two months later, blowing away the field at the U.S. Open. Since then, he has grown his major total to four – the most of golf’s heralded 20-somethings – and now it’s Patrick Reed’s turn to see if he’s ready.
On Saturday, McIlroy wasted little time throwing down the gauntlet once his bogey-free 65 was enough to secure a final-round pairing with Reed, with whom he memorably sparred during the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine.
Sure, McIlroy is the one chasing the career Grand Slam here. And he’s the one who hasn’t won a major in four years. And he’s the one with the higher world ranking and more big-game experience. “But I feel like all the pressure is on him,” McIlroy said.
And in many respects, he’s right. Reed has the lead, by three shots at 14-under 202. He hasn’t yet won a major. He has three of the top-8 players in the world behind him. And as an Augusta State alum, he supposedly has the hometown support, too.
“He’s got to deal with that and sleep on that tonight,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I can go out there and play like I’ve got nothing to lose.”
That’s not completely true, of course. With a comeback win Sunday, McIlroy can become the sixth player to win all four major championships, joining the greats of the game, all of whom are on a one-name basis: Sarazen, Hogan, Jack, Gary and Tiger.
But there’s a reason why McIlroy is 0-for-9 on a course that is tailor-made for his awe-inspiring skill set – it’s a challenge, mentally and physically, to capture that final leg. Arnold Palmer never did it. Tom Watson never did it. Lee Trevino never did it. McIlroy has come as close as anyone, grabbing a four-shot lead in 2011, but then he self-immolated on the final day.
“But now I’m ready,” he said. “I learned a lot from it. I’m happy to be in the final group.”
To get there, McIlroy needed his best round of the week on a wild and soggy Saturday at Augusta. He was already 3 under for the day when he arrived on the par-5 eighth. His second shot caromed off a mound and into a tricky spot right of the green, leaving him little margin for error. He bumped his pitch shot into the hill, watched it race onto the green and disappear after clanking off the flagstick for an unlikely eagle to share the lead.
“I rode my luck a little bit,” he said.
McIlroy stalled around the turn, allowing Reed to get away again, and then got caught in the heaviest rainfall of the day as he lined up his second shot into the par-5 13th. He conceded afterward that he probably rushed his shot to keep from getting soaked, but he yanked his long-iron approach into the azaleas. Fortunate to even find his ball in the flora – “Not the first time,” he smiled – he chopped out to the front of the green. From there he got up-and-down for a momentum-saving par.
After his tee shot on 18 caught the pines and left him 186 yards, uphill, to a back pin, McIlroy carved his approach to 20 feet, then rolled in the putt for one final birdie and fist pump. He practically floated toward the clubhouse, where he issued the first salvo.
“I’m really excited to go out there tomorrow and show everyone what I’ve got, show Patrick Reed what I’ve got,” he said. “All the pressure’s on him tomorrow. I’m hoping to come in and spoil the party.”
Because he has his own celebration planned, seven years in the making.