ORLANDO, Fla. – Four.
That's how many cracks Rory McIlroy has had at completing the career Grand Slam at Augusta National since winning the British Open at Royal Liverpool in 2014.
McIlroy must win the Masters next month to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in having claimed all four major titles.
McIlroy needs no reminder that he has come up empty four times at Augusta despite finishing in the top 10 on each occasion. None of those failures was more disappointing than his closing 74 last year in the final group to wind up six strokes behind playing competitor Patrick Reed.
"I've failed," said McIlroy, who then referenced Abraham Lincoln, who lost eight elections in his political career. "He wound up being the president of the United States. So, I’ve still got a bit of time."
Interesting take by the Northern Irishman/U.S. history buff. McIlroy has been something of an enigma. He returns to action this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational as the defending champion (tee times).
After entering last year’s final round two shots off the lead, McIlroy birdied five of his last six holes en route to a bogey-free 64 and three-shot victory over Bryson DeChambeau. The victory was the 14th of McIlroy’s PGA Tour career, and first since Sept. 25, 2016, the date of Arnold Palmer’s death. Thanks to a scintillating putting performance at Bay Hill a year ago – McIlroy set career-best marks in total putts (100) and strokes gained putting (10.027) – he ended his victory drought, but he has not won since.
McIlroy's failure at the 2018 Masters can be summed up in one stroke: he pumped his opening tee shot on Sunday right of right, and it was evident that he folded under the pressure.
Likewise, he never mounted a Sunday charge when paired in the final round of the Tour Championship with eventual winner Tiger Woods. From before the time he was chipping golf balls into a washing machine on TV as a 9-year-old prodigy, McIlroy had longed for the day when he could go head-to-head with his idol, with a big title on the line. But their Sunday duel turned out to be more nightmare than a dream come true. Knowing that he could ill afford to make any mistakes, McIlroy suffered another Sunday swoon (74) as his biggest weapon, his driver, proved to be his Achilles’ heel.
McIlroy enters the API with four consecutive top-five finishes for the first time in his career. Such form suggests he's close to breaking through, and he's brimming with confidence.
"Sooner or later, I'll turn all these good finishes into a win," he said.
But the flip side of his close-but-no-cigar streak is that he hasn't won in the past eight times he's played out of the final group over the past 14 months. Sometimes, he simply has been outplayed, such as when Xander Schauffele scorched the earth to claim the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January, and when Dustin Johnson shot a remarkable 21 under at the WGC Mexico Championship to beat McIlroy by five. (McIlroy was five strokes better than third.) World No. 2 Justin Rose played alongside McIlroy when he chipped in at 15 to pull away for victory last year at Bay Hill and says McIlroy simply needs to stay patient.
"When he wins, it looks so easy that you think, Why aren't you doing this week in, week out?" Rose said. "But we all know that golf isn't that way.
"If I was Rory, I would basically be telling myself to be patient and keep focusing on what I'm doing and keep creating the chances, but one win in 12 months is not going to be acceptable for Rory, for sure."
Patience is a virtue that McIlroy hasn't always had in large supply, but he continues to preach it and count "the little personal wins," and says he has left pleased with his performances at Kapalua, Torrey Pines, Riviera and Mexico City. He thinks his best golf is still to come.
"You know the golf is in there," he said. "It's just letting that golf come out when it matters most.
"If I’m on this path, which I think I am, to becoming a better player and having a better mindset and coming to terms better with perceived losses…. If someone were to tell me you have to go through 12 or 18 months or 24 months of this, but come out the other side of it and you will have those five-win seasons, six-win seasons, these 12, 18, 24 months will have been worth it."
We've seen McIlroy go on such runs before. The prevailing notion has been that a balky putter has held McIlroy back from winning a major championship since 2014, but NBC analyst Paul Azinger touched on a subject that deserves more attention.
"I think he makes a lot of undisciplined decisions," Azinger said. "Between him and his caddie, they have to be better because it's a very thin line between Rory and domination."
McIlroy's failure to close on Sundays the way he did at API last year begs the question of whether he'll have what it takes to seal the deal at Augusta next month. But McIlroy says he has become more comfortable with the task of completing the career Grand Slam.
"It's definitely taken me time to come to terms with the things I've needed to deal with inside my own head, and 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," he said. "If I didn't know the history of the game and I wasn't such a fan, it would work in my favor. But that's not me. It would be a massive achievement. It would be huge."
Among McIlroy’s finest traits has been an ability to prove the doubters wrong. After he blew the Masters in 2011, McIlroy bounced back by winning the U.S. Open two months later in a romp. Could he be on the verge of having the last laugh again? Rose, for one, says to beware.
"Great thing about Rory, which when you're competing against him is not the great thing, but when he's questioned and he kind of somehow snaps into a gear, he proves a lot of people wrong. He's done that through his career a couple of times," Rose said. "So, I'm going to be careful about saying too much."
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @adamschupak