“I hit a little white ball around a field sometimes.”
There is an unavoidable sense of irony and aptness to the biography of Holywood’s greatest rockstar. A dry jibe from a golfer who became guilty of taking his game too seriously, and whose astonishing talent masked an overarching desire that ultimately turned against him.
Over the past four years, Rory McIlroy has wrangled despairingly at times to harmonise his golf with his own happiness. The putter, that he wryly referred to as a “son of a b***h” in his youth, became a pent up vessel of his own aggression, the lung through which his sheer will breathed and blew putts long past the hole. His mind bubbling with frustration after each near miss and a sequence of mundane Sunday finishes.
But the message ahead of McIlroy’s bow at Augusta this week is clear. The Ulsterman is returning to a scene of soreness in his career with an almost cathartic contentment. He is playing some of the greatest golf of his career, and has seemingly never been less plussed by its outcome.
The psychological shadows that followed McIlroy’s unravelling at Augusta in 2011 - floundering to an 80 in the final round - have long been cast away. Even if, by virtue of Sod’s Law, annulling those demons so spectacularly just two months later at the US Open, has somehow made this more protracted slumber harder to endure.
Victory at The Masters would make McIlroy only the sixth man in history to complete the career Grand Slam – joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods – and lay claim to being Europe’s greatest golfer in history. Even for a player who conquered so much in his youth, that mantle has come with its burdens.
“It’s definitely taken me time to come to terms with the things I needed to deal with inside my own head regarding the Grand Slam,” McIlory tellingly gave up ahead of this year’s tournament.
“I think sometimes I’m too much of a fan of the game because I know exactly who has won the Grand Slam and I know exactly the people I would be putting myself alongside. If I didn’t know the history of the game, and I wasn’t such a fan, it would work in my favour. But that’s not me. It would be a massive achievement. It would be huge.”
There can be no doubting McIlroy’s new sense of freedom – aided by his work with Brad Faxon, a former Tour pro and tutee of acclaimed sports psychologist Bob Rotella. Since the turn of the year, his form has been unparalleled by any player. He’s waged a crusade on scoring statistics, finished in the top-10 at every event he’s entered and extinguished lingering doubts by clinching his first victory in 12 months at The Players Championship.
In 2017, McIlroy claimed he “would not be fulfilled” if he didn’t win the Green Jacket in his career. Now, he says, the title has no void to plug. “I’ve become a lot more comfortable with the fact that I’m going to fail more times than I succeed at that certain conquest or whatever you want to call it,” he continued.
“It’s been having to focus over the last six or seven months on my attitude, not letting golf define who I am as a person… keeping those two things separate is something I’ve worked hard on.”
Paradoxically, that balance has reawakened the most prized facet of McIlroy’s early career - his ruthlessness. The defining characteristic that allowed him to see out victory at Sawgrass and end his 12-month trophy drought. And so when he claims “his desire is huge, but he doesn’t need to win” it can be interpreted almost as a means of diversion, quelling his hunger so things can flourish of their own natural accord.
There has always been that intangible, myth-brushed air of destiny about McIlroy. So perhaps, through this newfound balance, fate will finally conspire in his favour.
Yet, as he takes to Augusta under the atmosphere that this is his Masters to lose, the question remains: When he steps onto the first tee and hits that little white ball around golf’s most glorious field, will it hold up under the weight of expectation?
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