Rory McIlroy’s roller-coaster Masters another case of what might have been

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Not again. Not now. Not here. Not after all we’ve been through.

The Rory McIlroy Heartbreak Express is rolling through Augusta yet again, bringing the usual swirl of warring emotions: hope, fear, resignation, irritation, awe, titillation. We’ve been down these tracks plenty of times before, to the point that the template is well-defined.

For the first round McIlroy looked overwhelmed and unfocused, putting together a 75 that was summed up by his self-talk after a drowned tee shot at 16: “That is so bad.” The limp start evoked so many other dispiriting opening rounds for McIlroy at the Masters (see, the opening 73 last year, a 74 in 2010, 72s in three other years). With the pressure of actually winning seemingly erased, McIlroy suddenly remembered who he is, shooting a stellar 66 in the second round, a score bettered by only one player (Corey Connors). It was a mournful achievement, reminding us what could have been.

Between rounds McIlroy diagnosed a swing flaw that is really an emotional one: “I went and hit five 9‑irons and a 3‑wood in between rounds and just tried to get myself to release it. Sometimes I just get so draggy and hold on, sort of hold on to it. Just a matter of trying to release it a little bit more and being a little bit more committed to my shots and my swing.”

The commitment held into Saturday, though McIlroy’s burst of birdies in the middle of the round — four in five holes, beginning on number 8 — owed more to a hot putter than his ballstriking. When McIlroy stepped to the 13th tee he was eight under, only one shot out of second place and still within shouting distance of leader Dustin Johnson. The master of the backdoor top-10s (he had five in row 2014-18), McIlroy was suddenly front and center in the developing drama, with two tantalizing par-5s awaiting.

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But on the do-or-die 13th, which he played in one over across the first two rounds, McIlory hit a leaky drive and was forced to lay up out of the juicy rough. A good wedge shot left him six feet for birdie and a crucial chance to extend the momentum. But McIlroy charged the putt past the hole and then gassed the comeback, too. You could feel the deflation across all of Golf Twitter.

At 15, straining to make up ground, he played a risky slinging hook around the trees and splashed his second shot. (Hours later, Johnson would pull off that shot to perfection.) McIlroy’s 67 was bettered by only one player on the day — big, bad DJ — but it was another case of what might’ve been.

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Afterward, Rory tried hard to focus on the positives. “Yeah, 11 under for the last two days, I think that sort of speaks for itself,” he said. “The good golf was in there, I just didn’t allow myself to play that way on the first 18 holes. This course can do that. This course can make you a little bit careful and a little bit tentative at times. I’ve always said I play my best golf when I’m trusting and freer, and I’ve been a lot freer over the last 36 holes.”

McIlroy, 31, conceded that he is too far back to make a serious run at Johnson. The missing piece of the Grand Slam will have to wait another year for this massively talented but flawed champion. “I try to view everything as a learning experience,” he said Saturday, wistfully, “but yeah, I’ll look back at [the first round] and rue some of the shots that I hit and some of the thought processes I had and just try to learn from it and be better the next time.”

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Alan Shipnuck

GOLF senior writer Alan Shipnuck writes longform features and a monthly column for GOLF Magazine and has his own vertical on entitled “The Knockdown,” which is home to podcasts, video vignettes, event coverage and his popular weekly mailbag AskAlan. He is the author of five books on golf, including na­tional best-sellers Bud, Sweat & Tees and The Swinger (with Michael Bamberger). Shipnuck is very active on Twitter, with a following of 50,000.