Rory McIlroy finishes strong, but can’t overcome poor start

Rory McIlroy chips to the 10th hole during the final round of the Masters Tournament Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, at Augusta National. (Curtis Compton/Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Rory McIlroy chips to the 10th hole during the final round of the Masters Tournament Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, at Augusta National. (Curtis Compton/Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Rory McIlroy has experienced his share of heartbreaks at Augusta National. Only this time the quest to complete the career grand slam didn’t dramatically screech to a halt on Sunday afternoon, as was the case in 2011 and 2017.

This time the train left the track in the first round, specifically over those final eight holes. McIlroy’s hopes for his first Masters were derailed by a first-round 75, his highest opening round in 12 starts at Augusta.

But over the next three rounds, McIlroy resolutely snugged his cap tightly over his head and set about finding his true form. He completed the tournament with rounds of 66-67-69 and finished tied for fifth at 11-under 277. He made only two bogeys over the final 54 holes. He even birdied the diabolical par-3 12th hole twice.

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It was the first time McIlroy had posted three rounds in the 60s at the Masters. His final score was only one-shot off his career best of 12 under he posted in 2015 that left him fourth place.

But it was too little, too late for the Northern Irishman.

“That first day I actually did OK,” McIlroy said. “Even-par through nine here is not that bad. And then that second morning, I just didn’t quite have it.”

When play was suspended because of darkness on Thursday, McIlroy returned early the next morning and bogeyed three of his next four holes. He was visibly annoyed and could be heard talking to himself after each poor shot. It was hardly the start he wanted.

“I honestly had been playing so good coming in here (a combined 21 under in his two previous events) and then I go into the first round and I shoot 75 and I’m like, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ ” McIlroy said. “I knew it was in there. It was just a matter of trusting a little more and being committed.”

A few contemplative minutes on the range prior to his second round and pep talk from Jimmy Dunne, a friend and member of Augusta National, got McIlroy headed in the right direction. From that point he looked like the No. 5-ranked golfer in the world.

McIlroy began Sunday’s round eight shots behind Dustin Johnson and knew the odds of victory were astronomical. But when he birdied the 11th hole to reach 11 under, McIlroy watched the numbers change on the scoreboard. Johnson had dropped a shot and was at 15 under. It caused an elevated pulse rate, at least for a moment, as McIlroy walked to the next tee.

“I thought maybe there’s a chance,” he said. “It was probably wishful thinking on my part on the eighth green.”

About that time the wind picked up a bit and conditions got tougher. McIlroy made birdie at No. 13, but it turned out to be his last one of the day, and Johnson kept pouring it on. When McIlroy tapped in for par at the final hole, he had to settle for his third top-five finish and sixth top-10 at Augusta. Still, he left the course feeling good about his game.

“I need to take the positives and I played the last 54 really well and only made two bogeys in that 54-hole stretch, which is probably the best run of golf I’ve played here,” he said.

McIlroy said he missed the galleries and the typical Masters buzz surrounding the event, but admitted the low-key vibe led to a more relaxed approach. “I love the feeling of being relaxed out there and it’s something I probably need to try to adopt,” he said. McIlroy said he probably even gained weight this week, unlike previous years when the nerves were higher.

And he’s already looking forward the Masters in the spring, when the fairways and greens are firmer than they were this week.

“There’s a number of shots I hit this week where I would hit my number and it would spin off the green or it just wouldn’t do what you expect it to do,” he said. “So, I’d love to get another shot at it in April and have the course play maybe more what we’re accustomed to.”

It will also be the last competitive golf McIlroy plays for a while. He’s planning to shut it down and relax for a couple of months at his home in Jupiter, Fla.

“I’m going to be a man of leisure,” he said. “Lie by the pool a little bit, get back on the bike. Obviously watch my daughter (Poppy, born on the eve of the Tour Championship at East Lake) grow up a little bit and have fun with that. … There’s certainly some stuff in my golf game I want to work n before next year.”

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