Golf’s civil war casts long shadow as Rory McIlroy aims to finally slay Masters demon

McIlroy heads to Augusta National in a 10th attempt to complete a career grand slam alongside plenty of other intriguing storylines at the year’s first major

Luke Baker
Thursday 11 April 2024 07:42 BST
Rory McIlroy will try to ignore hostilities between the PGA Tour and the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf as he attempt to finally win the Masters
Rory McIlroy will try to ignore hostilities between the PGA Tour and the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf as he attempt to finally win the Masters (Getty)

Sometimes in sport, it’s the near miss, followed by the bravery of getting up to go again, only to miss out once more that leaves the most indelible emotional mark. The repeated hope and optimism, crushed every time, often in increasingly cruel ways, until there are no more chances left.

Maybe this will be the year that Jimmy White finally wins the World Snooker Championship...? Or the England men’s football team finally win another major tournament...? Or Ireland finally make it past a Rugby World Cup quarter-final...?

Or Rory McIlroy finally wins the Masters to complete a career grand slam...?

The story is well known. As a prodigiously talented 21-year-old at the 2011 Masters, he led by four strokes heading into the final day and still had an advantage at the turn, only for the most spectacular Sunday back-nine collapse to occur as he shot 80 to drop out of the top 10.

He promptly shook that off to win a first major later that summer en route to racking up four of the sport’s biggest titles in three years, inviting Tiger Woods comparisons and suggestions that he could even eclipse Jack Nicklaus’s seemingly untouchable record of 18 men’s majors.

But the Masters always eluded him. Five consecutive top-10 finishes from 2014 to 2018, a fifth place in 2020 and second spot behind a rampant Scottie Scheffler in 2022 prove he has a game more than capable of taming Augusta National but the green jacket is yet to adorn the Northern Irishman’s burly shoulders.

McIlroy endured an infamous collapse at the 2011 Masters
McIlroy endured an infamous collapse at the 2011 Masters (Getty)

The wider major drought has reached a decade, so he’d undoubtedly bite your hand off for even a third PGA Championship crown but the Masters remains the ultimate, tantalising goal. The tournament victory that would allow him to join Nicklaus, Woods, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Gary Player in capturing a career grand slam.

Every year, McIlroy alters his Augusta preparation to try and break the duck. This season, it has involved playing a much busier schedule than usual and visiting legendary coach Butch Harmon in Las Vegas for a swing tip or two.

“I met Butch when I was 14 years old, so we’ve always had a good relationship,” declared McIlroy. “If there’s one guy that I want to go and get a second opinion from, it’s him. It’s the same stuff that I’ve been trying to do with my coach Michael [Bannon], but he sort of just said it in a different way that maybe hit home with me a little bit more. It was a really worthwhile trip.”

The proof will only be seen once we know who is donning the green jacket come Sunday evening. Maybe this is the year that the McIlroy grand slam dream is finally realised...

This will be McIlroy’s tenth attempt to complete a career grand slam
This will be McIlroy’s tenth attempt to complete a career grand slam (AP)

While Rory’s quest for immortality grabs its annual headlines, the 2024 Masters has plenty of other sub-plots to make it one of the most intriguing men’s golf majors for a long time.

The shadow of golf’s civil war between the PGA Tour and the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf looms depressingly large as the optimism of last year’s shock announcement that the two sides were on the brink of a merger to bring everybody back together has faded in the absence of any tangible momentum towards that goal.

Players are still crossing the divide, LIV still can’t offer ranking points for their events and out-of-touch multimillionaires are still portraying themselves as hard done by. Talor Gooch, with zero major top-10 finishes to his name, claims the winner of the 2024 Masters will have an asterisk by their name because he isn’t playing in the tournament. No one ever said professional golfers were the most self-aware bunch...

The civil war has an added twist this week as reigning Masters champion and presumed loyalist Jon Rahm has made the switch from PGA to LIV since winning the green jacket last April. The fact Rahm is far less widely despised than some former converts like Patrick Reed and Phil Mickelson has complicated matters and while golf fans suffer on a week-to-week basis by not watching the world’s best square off, it has added further intrigue to the majors.

Jon Rahm is defending the title he won a year ago
Jon Rahm is defending the title he won a year ago (Getty)

Rahm could well be the first first-time winner since Sir Nick Faldo to retain his title, which would be a boon for LIV and a blow for the PGA, but while the politics of golf may be insufferable, Augusta should at least provide four days of world-class golf to take our mind off it all.

The Spaniard certainly won’t have things all his own way, though, with world No 1 Scheffler looking unbeatable at times this season and the bookies’ favourite to win a second green jacket two years after grabbing his first. If his putter behaves, there’s a genuine chance Scheffler could run away with the tournament but if not, a slew of candidates from both tours are waiting in the wings to pounce.

Xander Schauffele leads the band of players yet to win a major who could easily rectify that this week, Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama are among the former winners more than capable of repeating the trick and major machine Brooks Koepka lives for weeks like this. A sixth major title to cement his place as the greatest player of his generation, and a first green jacket to leave him just a Claret Jug away from his own career grand slam, will be exactly what the big-event animal expects as he heads up Magnolia Lane this week.

McIlroy’s yearly pursuit may well end in heartbreak once more but the Masters never fails to deliver and a welcome distraction from the civil war is exactly what the sport of golf needs.

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