Three words that represent professional golf’s holy grail — career grand slam — have hung around his neck like an anvil for darn near seven years now, and Rory McIlroy is taking a different approach to solve a “problem” most golfers would love to have.
No more looking back. No more wondering what might have been. Rather, focus on what can be.
Adding the 2014 Open Championship title to his 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA trophies put him on the brink of an achievement attained by only five golfers.
Winning another PGA a month after his British triumph at Royal Liverpool emphasized the obvious: The fourth major title to complete the slam — the Masters — would be automatic.
Belay that “automatic.” The quest continues.
“I would have loved to have done it at this point, but I realize I’ve got plenty more years to do it,” he said prior to starting his seventh Masters with the slam in sight. “... For me to do that, I just have to go out and try to play four good rounds of golf on this golf course. I’ve played a bunch of really good rounds on this course, just not four in a row, and that’s the challenge for me.”
He set out at mid-morning Thursday in company of Xander Schauffele and Jon Rahm in the first round of the 85th Masters, and early returns on the look-to-the-future idea are not encouraging.
He salvaged par after wayward drives on the second and third holes, then bogeyed 5-6-7 — reminiscent of 2020’s first-round 5-over-par 77 and, really, in keeping with his recent results. His approach shot on No. 7 reached the gallery and hit his dad, Gerry McIlroy, in the leg.
He followed a birdie at the par-5 eighth with a bogey at the ninth. Bogeys at 11 and 13 added to the misery. A birdie on the long 15th helped salve the wounds on his way to a 4-over-par 76.
McIlroy arrived at Augusta National with his game in a state of disrepair. For the first time since flirting with the title in 2011, he has been largely ignored by those predicting a winner and some pundits theorized he would be more relaxed out of the limelight.
The idea did not bear fruit Thursday.
He has not won in almost 18 months and his performance in the recent Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Players Championship speaks volumes. In position to challenge at Bay Hill, he posted a final 76. And at Sawgrass a week later, he shot 79-75 to miss the cut.
“I’ve been sort of struggling with or trying to find a grasp with my swing,” said McIlroy, who his dropped to 12th in the world rankings. “It’s basically about trying to understand the body movements a little bit more, understanding why certain shots happen and how to fix those on the fly.”
His search for answers led to changing coaches. The coronavirus outbreak prevented in-person work with his life-long instructor, and he turned to Pete Cowen, a European teaching pro he first met almost 20 years ago.
No one who remembers the young McIlroy would believe he would be in this situation. At 21, he led the 2011 Masters by four strokes on the final day only to collapse on the back nine, but he rebounded to dominate in the U.S. Open two months later.
It looked like he wouldn’t win just one green jacket. He would win a closet full.
The statistics says he’s been close with six top-10s in his last eight trips to Augusta National. What the numbers do not show is that none of the top 10s came with the title within reach.
In 2012, he shot 77-76 on the weekend after finishing two rounds one stroke from the lead. In 2018, his third-round 65 set up a showdown with Patrick Reed, but he posted a 74 and dropped to fifth. He took fifth again last year, but his opening 77 meant he never really contended.
Cowen, his new coach, told reporters that he wants McIlroy to think less about how great he has been and focus more on how great he can be, and Rory bought in to the philosophy.
“I feel like there has been a lot of looking back to try to go forward instead of just saying, ‘OK this is where we are, this is the present, this is what I have to work with and let’s go forward from here,’ ” McIlroy said. The plan now “is this is what I have to work with and we go from here.”
He could not like what he saw Thursday. Barring an overnight change in form, that career grand slam anvil will haunt him for at least another year.
Golfers with career grand slam
Gene Sarazen — first major 1922; complete slam 1935
Ben Hogan — first major 1946; complete slam 1953
Gary Player — first major 1959; complete slam 1965
Jack Nicklaus — first major 1963; complete slam 1966
Tiger Woods — first major 1997; complete slam 2000
Golfers searching for grand slam but missing a major
Walter Hagen — 11 majors; missing Masters
Jim Barnes — 4 majors; missing Masters
Lee Trevino — 6 majors; missing Masters
Rory McIlroy — 4 majors; missing Masters
Tommy Armour — 3 majors; missing Masters
Sam Snead — 7 majors; missing U.S. Open
Phil Mickelson — 5 majors; missing U.S. Open
Byron Nelson — 5 majors; missing British Open
Raymond Floyd — 4 majors; missing British Open
Tom Watson — 8 majors; missing PGA
Arnold Palmer — 7 majors; missing PGA
Jordan Spieth — 3 majors; missing PGA
Note: Hagen and Armour played in the Masters, established in 1934, toward the end or their careers. Barnes retired before the Masters started.
Friday Masters tee times
8 a.m. — Vijay Singh, Martin Laird
8:12 a.m. — Larry Mize, Jimmy Walker, Brian Gay
8:24 a.m. — Carlos Ortiz, Mackenzie Hughes, Bernd Wiesberger
8:36 a.m. — Mike Weir, C.T. Pan, Robert MacIntyre
8:48 a.m. — Jose Maria Olazabal, Matt Wallace, Lanto Griffin
9 a.m. — Victor Perez, Jason Kokrak, Marc Leishman
9:12 a.m. — Fred Couples, Francesco Molinari, a-Charles Osborne
9:24 a.m. — Zach Johnson, Kevin Na, Gary Woodland
9:36 a.m. — Shane Lowry, Justin Rose, Matt Kuchar
9:48 a.m. — Billy Horschel, Tyrrell Hatton, Ryan Palmer
10:06 a.m. — Phil Mickelson, Tommy Fleetwood, Scottie Scheffler
10:18 a.m. — Patrick Cantlay, Sungjae Im, Matt Fitzpatrick
10:30 a.m. — Adam Scott, Bryson DeChambeau, Max Homa
10:42 a.m. — Tony Finau, Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Thomas
10:54 a.m. — Jordan Spieth, Cameron Smith, Collin Morikawa
11:06 a.m. — Michael Thompson, Hudson Swafford
11:18 a.m. — Sandy Lyle, Matt Jones, Dylan Frittelli
11:30 a.m. — Ian Woosnam, Jim Herman, Stewart Cink
11:42 a.m. — Sebastian Munoz, Henrik Stenson, Robert Streb
11:54 a.m. — Bernhard Langer, Will Zalatoris, a-Joe Long
12:12 p.m. — Brian Harman, Ian Poulter, Brendon Todd
12:24 p.m. — Charl Schwartzel, Si Woo Kim, Corey Conners
12:36 p.m. — Danny Willett, Joaquin Niemann, Kevin Kisner
12:48 p.m. — Jason Day, Matthew Wolff, Cameron Champ
1 p.m. — Hideki Matsuyama, Harris English, Abraham Ancer
1:12 p.m. — Bubba Watson, Brooks Koepka, Viktor Hovland
1:24 p.m. — Sergio Garcia, Webb Simpson, Christiaan Bezuidenhout
1:36 p.m. — Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood, a-Tylre Strafaci
1:48 p.m. — Xander Schauffele, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy
2 p.m. — Patrick Reed, Daniel Berger, Paul Casey