AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Rory McIlroy has had plenty of memorable moments on the back nine on Sunday, but two of the best have had nothing to do with the four-time major champion holding up a trophy at the end.
One came in 2018, when McIlroy was paired with Tiger Woods in the final group at the Tour Championship. McIlroy faded that Sunday at East Lake, but he was left with the best view possible to watch Woods win for the first time in five years.
The other came just last year, down the hill from the stately clubhouse at Augusta National, where McIlroy holed out from the bunker on the 18th to finish off his Masters — and then watched Collin Morikawa do the same right behind him.
“Obviously the last time this tournament was played I walked away from the course and the tournament pretty happy with myself, as you can see over there,” McIlroy said Tuesday, gesturing to a nearby photograph of him standing in the bunker, his club raised and the vestiges of a joyful cry still spread across the Northern Irishman’s face.
What could top those two moments this Sunday? Perhaps a green jacket and a career Grand Slam.
That bunker shot that sent Woods-like roars through the towering Georgia pines last year left McIlroy with a 64, matching the best final-round score in Masters history, and three shots back of winner Scottie Scheffler in second place.
Yet it also left McIlroy with a feeling he carries into his 15th try at Augusta National this week: confidence.
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“The only thing I could say is I proved to myself I could do it,” McIlroy explained. “As much as I didn’t really get into contention, there was part of me on the back nine last year that thought I had a chance. To play the way I did, and eagle 13 and have those feelings, in my mind anyway, I felt like it was a breakthrough.
“So any time I see an image like that,” McIlroy said, glancing again at the photograph of him on 18, “or the video of me and Collin doing what he did as well, it brings back those good vibes.”
The vibes haven’t always been good at Augusta National.
By most rights, McIlroy should have slipped into the first of many green jackets 12 years ago. He had opened with a 65, reached 12 under by the end of the third round and was still leading when he made the turn on Sunday. But a wayward tee shot ricocheted through the trees to the left of the 10th and McIlory made triple bogey. He made another bogey at the next. And when he splashed a shot into Rae’s Creek at the par-3 12th, his meltdown was complete.
He shot a final-round 80, and the lasting image was not of the 33-year-old McIlroy standing triumphantly in a bunker a dozen years later but of a 21-year-old McIlroy, so publicly wounded, doubled over his club in anguish.
“I don’t think every experience is going to be a good experience. That would lead to a pretty boring life,” said McIlroy, whose life is anything but these days as he becomes one of the PGA Tour’s leading voices in its showdown with LIV Golf.
“You have to learn from those challenges,” McIlroy said, “and learn from some of that scar tissues that built up.”
If anyone knows about scar tissue, figuratively and literally, it would be Woods. He played a practice round with McIlroy on Monday, and the five-time Masters champion might be the one person more confident in McIlroy than himself.
“It’s just a matter of time. Rory has the talent. He has the game. He has all the tools,” said Woods, the most recent player to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus in completing the modern Grand Slam.
“Last year he made a great run, put himself right there,” Woods said, “but I think it’s just a matter of time, whether it’s this year or next or whenever it comes. He will get it done. He will have a career Grand Slam. It’s just a matter of when it will be.”
It might be this week. McIlroy’s game is certainly on point. He won in January in Dubai and was second at Bay Hill before advancing to the semifinals of the Dell Match Play a couple of weeks ago, where he lost to Cameron Young.
Those results, coupled with the way McIlroy has learned to navigate Augusta National, are why oddsmakers picked him, along with defending champion Scottie Scheffler, to have his most memorable moment on the 18th green this Sunday.
“It looks like this is another prime year,” 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples said after watching McIlroy in a practice round this week. “He’s playing very, very well. What does he have to do? I don’t know. Is it surprising he’s never won this? Of course it is, the way he plays and the way he putts and how high he hits and how far he hits it. But it’s not that easy.
“He just does his own deal and plays like Rory can, he’ll be just fine. Then he’s got to beat two, four, five people on Sunday.”