The Masters hasn’t even started and we’re already wondering how Rory McIlroy’s performance will affect the rest of his year on the course. A monumental collapse in golf’s premier major tournament will have that effect.
McIlroy’s infamous implosion at the 2011 Masters was one of the most notorious late-round finishes in recent memory. With a one-shot lead at the turn, the then 21-year-old McIlroy watched his Masters hopes dissipate in a matter of minutes, dropping shot after shot to the field behind him. By the time he left Rae’s creek (which claimed his tee shot at No. 13), all hope was lost.
McIlroy’s final-round 80 pushed him to a 15th-place finish in the tournament, and it was hard to not feel for the budding superstar who fought so valiantly in the first three rounds.
The sting of the crushing loss dissipated in time—at least until he made a return trip to Augusta in 2012.
With the ghosts of his 2011 collapse likely embedded somewhere in his psyche, McIlroy turned in a final five-over card for a 40th-place finish in last year’s Masters, prompting more questions than answers.
McIlroy already has U.S. Open and PGA Championship titles to his name, and the world’s No. 2 golfer is far from finished adding to his resume. While he would certainly love a green jacket to add to his trophy case, there’s plenty of time to make it happen.
His path follows so many of the golfers we now consider among the best in the sport. Winning major tournaments is no easy task, especially at such a young age. It took Phil Mickelson more than 10 years just to win one major, and he’s gone on to vanquish his Masters demons with three green jackets since 2004.
With a shaky start to the year, McIlroy again raised questions about his focus and consistency with the Masters on the horizon. He silenced some of those critics with two top-10 finishes since the beginning of March, but we’re still left to wonder what a bad showing this weekend will mean for the rest of his season.
Regardless of the outcome at Augusta this weekend, McIlroy won’t let it define his year.
The 23-year-old has a firm understanding of what defines an elite golfer. It isn’t Masters wins or PGA Tour winnings, and it’s not something that can be taken away by not claiming a green jacket in his formative years (as quoted by James Corrigan of The Daily Telegraph):
We always go on about consistency but I always stop and think: ‘What if I finished 10th every week?’ I’d make a great living, be in all the great events – but it’d be pretty dull. I’d never get that feeling that I’ve beat everyone there is to beat that week, that incredible buzz. I know it doesn’t have to be a trade off, but all I’m saying is that if I have to take the down moments to experience those huge highs, then I’ll take them, sure.
That mentality isn’t something that will mysteriously vanish with another 40th-place finish or final-round 80, and neither outcome will change how McIlroy approaches the rest of his year on tour. There just isn’t a place for that in professional golf.
As any golfer will admit, winning is all about having a short memory—it’s one shot and on to the next. The same holds true for each tournament in which the world’s best participate throughout the course of the season.
Whether or not McIlroy leaves Augusta with a green jacket is irrelevant to what he does beginning April 15. At 23, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to break through the barrier that has kept him from Masters glory.
When his final putt rolls in this weekend, it will be on to the next tournament and another opportunity to prove his greatness among the best golfers in the world.
That's what will define him both this year and throughout his career.