Play in the Masters for any length of time and any player’s yardage book will fill with symbols that might equate to a skull and crossbones on a ancient treasure map: “Here be demons.”
At the age of 24 and having now played in six Masters, Rory McIlroy’s Augusta map is littered with no-go areas. Many are so far off the beaten track they are not on the usual tourist guides.
Take his visit to the cabins off the 10th tee three years ago, which he visited en route to a back-nine meltdown of such epic proportions that a lesser character might have never been heard of again. Instead, McIlroy won the next major championship by eight strokes. He won another by the same distance the following year.
But at Augusta he is still battling demons. More were added this year. In Friday’s second round he overhit the fourth green to such a degree that he almost struck Adam Scott on the fifth tee. At the 10th, he ran down the bank behind the green into a bush and, at the 13th, his approach took a mighty hard bounce off a sprinkler head on the back edge of the green and left him flailing about in the azaleas.
If the idea of his girlfriend, the tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, dyeing her hair scarlet this week was to blend in with the famously colourful flora in these parts, it did not seem to work. McIlroy made the cut but he was first out on Saturday morning and had the ignominy of being outscored by a marker, a 50-year-old club member.
No matter that the Northern Irishman’s 71 was one of only a handful of sub-par scores and he jumped more than 20 spots up the leader board, the image of the pre-tournament favourite being bested by someone not even competing in the event was irresistible.
In yesterday’s final round, McIlroy was playing alongside a worthier adversary in Jimmy Walker, the only player to have won three times so far this season on the PGA Tour.
Wozniacki was following her fiancé again but this time once more her usual blonde self. Perhaps she was trying to go incognito but the change only partially improved McIlroy’s fortunes.
He has been driving the ball terrifically well but he failed to take advantage of big boomers at the first couple of holes. He missed from six feet for a three at the opening hole and could not get up and down from a bunker at the second so had to settle for a par there as well.
His luck seemed out again, until the seventh hole. In the trees himself now, McIlroy spotted the tiniest of gaps in the branches and threaded it through to the green, where his ball rolled back down a slope to a couple of feet.
Finally, the world No 9 had a spring in his step and it proved the first of three birdies in a row. At the ninth, he saw his approach finish close to the hole, but in danger in sliding off the front of the green so he sprinted up the hill, strictly against Augusta etiquette, and marked it quickly.
A fine approach at the 11th, the hardest hole on the course this year, to three feet gave him a fourth birdie in five holes. This was more like it. But then the demons returned.
At the reachable par-fives on the back nine, the 13th and the 15th, he took bogey sixes. At the former he failed to carry the creek in front of the green, while at the latter he sailed his second over the green. The ball did not quite run into the pond on the 16th, as Walker’s did, but he still took four to get down after his first chip failed to reach the green.
There were also birdies at the 14th and 16th holes but the frustrating errors at the two par-fives summed up his inconsistent campaign. A birdie putt at the last refused to drop, of course. A closing 69 could have been better and the problem for McIlroy here has been his good rounds have not been good enough to make up for his habit of throwing in one shocker every year. In the last five Masters, he has returned three 77s, including on Friday, a 79 and an 80.
Walker finished with a 70, so the pair ended the week tied on level par. The leaders were out of sight but the prospect of a top 10 finish was something for McIlroy to cling to since his previous best result had been a tie for 15th place.
One year it will all click for McIlroy here, his demons will be tamed and the hair colour of his future wife will only be an issue if it clashes with the Green Jacket. It is a good theory but Greg Norman and Ernie Els are two perennial Augusta hopefuls who can attest that it is not always that simple.