AUGUSTA, Ga. – There’s an old Chinese proverb that says failure is the mother of success. Rory McIlroy, who is bidding to become the sixth golfer to achieve the career Grand Slam, hopes those words ring true for him this week at Augusta National.
McIlroy, 31, would have been the odds-on favorite at the Masters before the global pandemic postponed the year’s first major for seven months from its regularly-scheduled April time slot. At the time, he was World No. 1 and enjoying one of the best runs of his career. But since the PGA Tour resumed play in June, McIlroy has struggled to regain his form, recording just one top-10 finish while falling to No. 5 in the world. (He did make a field-best 29 birdies in his last start at the Zozo Championship.) In the meantime, Bryson DeChambeau has won twice, including the U.S. Open, and has stolen the headlines and attention from the Northern Irishman – not that he minds floating a bit under the radar this week.
“I do prefer that. I like it. I’ve always liked sort of doing my own thing and trying to stay as low key as possible,” McIlroy said. “Sometimes the way I’ve played over the years, that hasn’t happened because I’ve won some tournaments and I’ve been on some pretty good runs at times.
“But yeah, I don’t mind this. This is nice. It feels like everything this year is more subdued. It’s more relaxed. That’s the feel for me, anyway. Obviously, Bryson is going to be feeling a little different because the attention is on him and deservedly so coming off the back of a major win and basically disrupting the game of golf over the last few months. It’s a big story, and I’m just as intrigued as everyone else to see how that unfolds.”
Of DeChambeau’s distance revolution, McIlroy added: “If trophies were handed out just for how far you hit it and how much ball speed you have, then I’d be worried. But there’s still a lot of different aspects that you need to master in this game.”
McIlroy knows better than most that Augusta National demands a complete game. He held the lead on the 10th tee on Sunday in 2011 and shot 43 on the inward nine to blow the tournament in what would have been his first major title. He bounced back to win the very next major and to collect four in all, though none since the 2014 PGA Championship.
“I think my grit came from my failures, and I don’t have to look any further than this place in 2011. I learnt a lot from that day. I learnt a lot in terms of what I needed to be and what I didn’t need to be. You know, I needed to be myself. I didn’t need to try to be like anyone else,” he said. “But I think failure, you know, I try to say this to young guys that are coming through. You can’t be afraid of it. You have to embrace the fact that you are going to fail at things, but you should learn from them and then when you go again, you should be better.
“And you know, I’ve had a nice little bit of success in this game, but I have failed a hell of a lot more than I have succeeded in this game. And that is why I have succeeded, is because I went through those tough patches, and you need to. You need to go through those tough patches to learn.”
McIlroy has persevered and he’s learned so much in his failures that the 50-year-old three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who has endured his own Grand Slam quest, could offer little advice to McIlroy.
“The guy is as complete a player as there is, as well as smart, knowledgeable, and works hard,” said Mickelson, who played a practice-round match with Xander Schauffele against McIlroy and Dustin Johnson on Tuesday. “So he’ll win and complete the Grand Slam. He’s too great a player not to.
“Played with him today and he’s playing beautifully. I would be shocked if he wasn’t in contention with a great chance on Sunday. So whether it’s this year, whether it’s a few months from now, whether it’s a few years…
“I remember when I was trying to win a major, any major, and I struggled for many years, but I always knew and believed it would happen, and eventually at age 33 it eventually did. He has so many majors already and such a strong game that winning a Masters will happen. And when it does, I think he’s going to win a few.”
McIlroy has spent the stretch since the U.S. Open trying to generate additional speed in an effort to keep up with the Jones’s, or at least the Cameron Champ’s, Matthew Wolff’s and DeChambeau’s of the golf universe, and according to Schauffele that work already has paid off.
“He seems to have six, seven miles an hour more in the tank than when I last played with him,” Schauffele said. “On 13, I had my [TrackMan] machine out there with me and he asked me to put it down, and he just has a standard 45-inch driver, and he was clocking around 188 ball speed. The trees weren’t even there. They were there for me, so I was sitting up there joking, ‘I’ll just play my game. I don’t have the 340 in the air covered.’ ”
Perhaps more importantly, McIlroy has smoothed out his swing, which he complained had been getting too flat and underneath the plane, leading to a tendency to miss left.
“That sort of has given me a nice bit of freedom throughout my swing,” he said. “I don’t really have the fear of the left as I had sort of during the summer.”
McIlroy should also benefit from softer conditions in November and a forecast calling for rain suggests that Augusta National will play long and right into the hands of McIlroy, who has won three of his four majors in soggy, soft conditions. Count former U.S. Open winner and ESPN analyst Curtis Strange among those who believe McIlroy could get it done.
“If there’s a week that I think he can win, it’s Augusta,” Strange said. “He’s such a poster child for a champion of Augusta National the way he plays.”
As comfortable and confident in his abilities as McIlroy may be, can he withstand the pressure that comes with trying to become just the sixth golfer ever to win the career Grand Slam and first since Tiger Woods in 2000? Despite all of McIlroy’s claims that he’s comfortable if he never wins a green jacket and for all the meditation, puzzles and books he’s used as off-course distractions, it must weigh on him. Perhaps this is the week he shows his true grit.
“I’ve always felt like I had the game to do well around here and to play well, it’s just a matter of, you know, getting out of my own way and letting it happen,” he said. “But you have to go out and earn it. You can’t just rely on people saying that you’re going to win one. Greg Norman never did. Ernie Els never did. There are a lot of great people that have played this game that have never won a green jacket. It’s not a foregone conclusion, and I know that. I have to go out and earn it and play good golf.
“I think nowadays, with how many great players there are, I need to play my best golf to have a chance.”