Rory McIlroy was expecting good things when he got to the Masters.
He had played his best golf of the year at the Texas Valero Open the week before in San Antonio. McIlroy had played fairly consistently in that tournament through three rounds, but then he looked like the McIlroy of 2012 when he fired a 66 in the final round and finished second behind Martin Laird.
It was clear that McIlroy was feeling good when he got to Augusta. He was hammering his drives in the practice rounds, hitting his irons with precision and his putting stroke looked solid.
However, there was something even more important that he brought with him. It was that swagger. The same attitude that told the world he was the best golfer in the world a year ago.
That had been missing throughout the year. McIlroy was not the favorite going into the Masters. But it looked like he was rounding into good-enough form to give Tiger Woods a run for his money.
McIlroy actually had three decent rounds at Augusta. He fired a steady 72 in the first round and looked a little sharper in shooting a 70 in the second round.
His 142 put him just four shots out of the lead. Throw in his 69 in the final round and it appeared that McIlroy was right in the hunt.
He would have been if he had been steady or decent in the third round. He was neither of those. McIlroy fired a 79, and he looked nothing like one of the best golfers in the world.
All golfers have rounds when they are not on their game. It happens in all tournaments, including the majors. But if you are an elite golfer, you don't shoot 79 when you have an off-day. You shoot a 73.
The best golfers find a way to remain in contention when they are not executing at their best. McIlroy couldn't do that. When his third round started to get away from him, he did not seize control. He let his golf game go down the drain.
McIlroy admitted that once he started to make mistakes, he couldn't stop the downhill slide. "The margins are very small on this course and when you get on the wrong side of some of these slopes, you can't help but get a penalty," McIlroy said (source: PGATour.com). "I felt like I was done in on 11 and 15, but that's the way it goes."
McIlroy, 23, is approaching his physical prime. When it comes to the ability to hit each shot well and do it consistently, McIlroy demonstrated that he could do it with ease in 2012.
He can't do it at all in 2013. It just doesn't make sense.
Forget about new equipment or getting distracted by his stunning, tennis-playing girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki. Those issues have nothing to do with his golf game.
If McIlroy truly believes he belongs at the top of the golf world, he's going to put in the work to get there. He can't look at Tiger Woods or any other competitor and think that he's not as good.
In an interview before the Masters, he basically told the world that he didn't compare to Woods.
"He’s got 77 PGA Tour events; I’ve got six. He’s got 14 majors; I’ve got two," McIlroy told the assembled media (h/t Hank Gola, the New York Daily News). "If I saw myself a rival to Tiger, I wouldn’t really be doing him much justice.”
If McIlroy had more confidence and grit in his demeanor, he would have talked about how difficult a time Woods would have trying to beat him.
He didn't need to focus on the disparity in his experience or the number of wins. Obviously, Woods is 14 years older, and he's going to have the numerical advantage.
He needed to focus on his own abilities.
He wouldn't have risen to the ranks of the No. 1 golfer in the world if he didn't believe in himself.
What has McIlroy done with that aggressiveness and confidence? It is missing in action.
He needs to quit being a nice guy and play as if golf is the most important thing to him.
He has to get that killer instinct back. If he can do that, McIlroy has a chance to assert himself at the U.S. Open or the British Open.
If he doesn't, the golf world will continue to wonder what's wrong with McIlroy's game.