Two things tend to blight sporting careers with a bleak predictability: unforeseen injury and untethered expectations. The psychological toxicity often comes not from the aspirations of the athlete – since those can be managed or adjusted – but from the expectations he cannot control: those of others, the insistent chorus that chirps today about his tremendous potential and tomorrow about his dismal underachieving.
That chorus must now be as familiar a feature of spring as the first birdsong for Rory McIlroy.
He has heard it each of the last four Aprils when he drove down Magnolia Lane in search of a career Grand Slam at the Masters. It only grows louder each time he drives in the other direction at week’s end without a green jacket.
McIlroy “is fated to miss out on the tournament he wants the most,” wrote one particularly fatuous commentator after a final-round 74 left McIlroy T-5 last week. He proceeded to describe the four-time major champion as a quitter and guilty of a “disgraceful performance” before concluding, “He will likely never get a better chance to claim the Masters.”
Isn’t the certainty that attends idiocy splendid to behold?
This drivel isn’t representative of most autopsies offered on the Masters, but it’s kin to a lazy trope now becoming fashionable: that McIlroy is in danger of becoming his generation’s Greg Norman, doomed to never close at the event he aches for most because he’s either too nervous or snake-bitten (itself a nonsense born of fevers about fate and golf gods).
At this stage of his career, to be likened to Ahab and his futile pursuit of Moby Dick is, in the argot of Ian Poulter, a little previous.
McIlroy’s record doesn’t show a litany of failures at the Masters. The Northern Irishman endured one final-round collapse (seven years ago) and has otherwise assembled a handful of respectable top-10s. They weren’t near misses. Most were back-doored with a fine Sunday round. The reality every April is that he is being judged not on his flops at Augusta National but on his successes elsewhere.
McIlroy was just 22 years old when he won the U.S. Open at Congressional, 23 when he claimed the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island and 25 when he lifted the Claret Jug at Hoylake. Who else achieved three legs of the Grand Slam by that age? Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and, more recently, Jordan Spieth.
Nicklaus needed three tries at the British Open before completing the slam in ‘66. Tiger did it in his first try in ‘00. Spieth will have his second crack at the PGA Championship this summer. If he doesn’t win the Wanamaker, will he be trailed from the gates of Bellerive with a drumbeat of questions about missed opportunity and the passing of time until he gets to Bethpage Black next year?
That would be as ridiculous with Spieth at 25 as it is with McIlroy, who turns 29 in a few weeks.
“I do think it’s premature,” said Gary Player, who was 26 when he won the third leg of his Grand Slam in 1962 and 29 when he completed it at Bellerive with the U.S. Open. “Rory won three of the four majors very quickly, so it’s only natural we are all eager for him to complete the Grand Slam soon.”
Player believes McIlroy will one day shake off the yoke the Masters is beginning to represent.
“No doubt he will have many more chances. Young, strong, fit, and he has both the mental strength to be a Masters champion and a golf game that is ideal for Augusta National,” he said. “He put himself in contention, again, and it just turned out to be a bad day.”
Any maybe it’s just that simple: a bad day. He played a lousy round. He was probably a little nervous. But he started three strokes back of a man who played solid golf, not three strokes ahead of him. Shooting 74 when you needed 67 to win is disappointing, but it isn’t a choke.
There are plenty of legends who didn’t get within one leg of the slam until they were in their 30s: Snead, Hogan, Palmer, Trevino, Watson. If five years from now McIlroy still doesn’t have a seat at the Champions Dinner, then the comparisons to Ahab and the Shark have merit. But not just yet.
Onward to the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. Phil Mickelson has been runner-up six times but not since it became his only missing leg of the slam five years ago. He turns 48 on Saturday of the Open. Now, if you’re looking for a dude chasing a whale …
Golfweek, April 15, 2018.