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During week of frustration amid high error count, McIlroy hasn't sounded like a Masters champion

 

Testing time: Rory McIlroy couldn’t find any momentum
Testing time: Rory McIlroy couldn’t find any momentum

By Vincent Hogan

The length of Tiger Woods' shadow obscured any other narrative rolling up out of Augusta on Sunday, so frustration at another lost major for Rory McIlroy never found compelling traction.

Much like Rory himself over the four days, the appetite just wasn't quite there. His week finished on the ninth green, all the roars distant and, most probably, a little emptying. McIlroy, the pre-tournament favourite, was never a factor in the 83rd Masters, three rounds in the 70s rendering Sunday's closing 68 largely meaningless.

Just a reminder of what he can do and, more pertinently, what might have been.

Rory finished tied 21st, eight shots back on Woods and never remotely close to working his way into contention.

"My game is still there," he said afterwards, reminding us how he'd played the par-fives in 11-under par for the week, a terrific stat, but bettered by big-hitters who were there to the end with Tiger like Tony Finau, Brooks Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Dustin Johnson.

McIlroy's high error count was the difference.

Sixteen bogeys in four days reduced him to a footnote, all that familiar pre-tournament talk of the career Grand Slam seeming ever so slightly tiresome now.

On Saturday, desperately needing a low score, McIlroy hit some awful, ill-conceived shots for a player of his calibre. He talked afterwards of "mud balls" making iron play difficult on a rain-softened course, but Finau covered the same opening nine holes in a six-under-par 30 shots.

It's an accepted wisdom that the course's real scoring opportunities present themselves once you step off the 11th green. Yet Finau, Patrick Cantlay, Webb Simpson, Schauffele and Rickie Fowler all made hay on Saturday's front nine.

Rory, by contrast, reached the turn in two over, 38 shots.

Every time McIlroy looked like getting momentum, he'd instantly relinquish it. Afterwards, he observed - unsolicited - that he hadn't "read anything". As if the golf world was consumed by an idea that some loose media comment might have gotten under his skin and been responsible for another lost opportunity.

The truth is that Rory himself seemed guilty of deepening the psychological challenge of chasing that career Grand Slam rather than diminishing it.

It seemed strange to see him on the range and putting with Dr Clayton Skaggs, the chiropractor, performance coach and founder of the Central Institute for Human Performance.

While most of his contemporaries had swing coaches by their side, Rory had Dr Skaggs.

Now it's a relationship that didn't do him much harm in the opening months of the season, so it would be unfair to depict it as anything especially unconventional. But there was a distinct sense of Rory exploring the mental puzzle facing him at a Masters a little too earnestly.

At the same time, someone like Koepka could reply "nothing, absolutely nothing" when asked on Friday evening to explain what he'd be thinking on Saturday as Masters leader.

There was a moment, walking down the fifth on Saturday, when McIlroy seemed to be almost in a private place. Having just birdied four and launched a huge drive, he marched almost 50 yards ahead of playing partner Marc Leishman and their two caddies, arms pushed out in front of him, palms facing the sky.

It was the closest he'd come to front-nine momentum in the third round only to then bogey three of the next five. Three birdies and an eagle on the back nine would be spoiled by two more bogeys. That made it 14 bogeys in his opening three rounds.

By Saturday evening, Molinari had half that figure for his previous 162 holes of tournament golf.

McIlroy's mistakes were coming in multiples then. Sure his 11 birdies and two eagles from those opening three rounds compared favourably with the leaders' assaults on par - Molinari 14 birdies; Finau 12 birdies, one eagle; Woods 16 birdies; Koepka 16 birdies, one eagle; Dustin Johnson 12 birdies.

It was the other side of the ledger that looked ugly.

McIlroy 14 bogeys; Molinari one; Finau three; Woods five; Koepka six, plus a double; Johnson four.

Errors are inevitable in a high-stress environment and there's a sense that Augusta now presents McIlroy with a set of circumstance that is complicating things. For as long as he continues travelling to Georgia, the career Grand Slam will be the context of his pursuit of the Green Jacket. Unless he wins one.

McIlroy kept talking up the positives in his game last week and, no doubt, that will have been with Dr. Skaggs' approval. Even on Saturday night, that was his message. That the tournament wasn't over, even though it's now 29 years since anybody won The Masters from further back than fifth after 54 holes.

"I've been making the birdies and doing the things you need to do around here," he stressed. "I've just... if I've missed a green, I haven't got up and down."

He talked about the Augusta rough being "about a quarter or half an inch longer than it usually is" and it being "hard to get control of your ball out of it." Bad news for someone hitting fewer than 60% of the fairways.

He stressed his game wasn't lacking anything especially worrisome and that he would learn plenty from the disappointment. But the end of tournament stats would reveal a multitude: like a 25% return from sand saves, like 63% of greens hit in regulation.

Asked had his week been much of a let-down, McIlroy's response sounded just a little practiced.

"Honestly, it's okay," he said. "It seems like you guys are more disappointed than I am. I'm good."

And Rory may, of course, be right. But, even through the worst of his troubles, it was hard to imagine those words ever falling from the lips of Tiger Woods.

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