AUGUSTA, Ga. — Rory McIlroy is a new dad caught in an unhealthy relationship: He loves the Masters, but the Masters doesn’t love him back. He wants to please Augusta National, but Augusta National keeps changing the rules on him. He has tried to make peace with the course through humor, with reverence, by trying too hard, and by consciously not trying too hard. The Masters just yawns and asks him to fetch a cup of coffee, and when he runs back, mug in hand, the tournament claims it really wanted tea.
“You play this course so much by memory: This putt is fast, this putt is not so fast, this putt goes more than you think, all that, and you sort of have to throw all that out the window this week because the course is playing completely different,” McIlroy said Friday afternoon, after removing a Masters mask that surprisingly did not try to suffocate him. “The greens are so much slower, so much softer, and because of that, they can use some different pins that we’ve never seen before, either.”
McIlroy finished the rain-delayed first-round Friday morning and immediately added some Masters demons to his considerable collection. On Tuesday, he joked that he would notice that the azaleas behind the 13th green were not in bloom because he has spent more time in them than most. On Friday, he hit his drive on No. 13 so far left, Augusta National members all voted against it. He found it and made bogey. Then he bogeyed 14. And then, after a birdie on 15, he bogeyed No. 16. He finished with a three-over 75.
Whenever he tried to hit a less-than-full shot, he dragged the club across the ball. He used his brief interlude before the second round to hit, he said, “five 9‑irons and a 3‑wood,” just to get his tempo right. He also got a pep talk from his friend Jimmy Dunne, a member here who apparently used some words even more colorful than the course in April.
McIlroy came back and shot a lovely 66, which should make this a happy story but is probably just the Masters teasing him again. McIlroy is now three-under for the week, just good enough to convince himself he can contend. Two of the last 10 Masters winners (Adam Scott and Danny Willett) were three-under or worse after two rounds. But this year’s tournament is different. McIlroy is six strokes behind Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, who are among the best players in the world. He has to pass so many top players. PointsBet.com had 11-1 odds on McIlroy to win before the tournament, 100-1 after the first round, and 40-1 as of this writing.
McIlroy needs to get hot, catch the best conditions Saturday, and hope for a heavy dose of good luck. History says if he wants that luck, he should put a different name on his bag. In 2011, he famously began the final round with a four-stroke lead and shot a final-round 80, including a drive on No. 10 that went, like Neil Armstrong, where no man had ever gone before. In 2018, he played in the final group with Patrick Reed, acted like the pressure was on Reed, and fooled nobody, including himself. In between, there were assorted disappointments and uneven performances, and a consistent pattern: McIlroy would show up as one of the five best players in the world and leave without a victory.
McIlroy needs the Masters to win the career grand slam. Five men have done it, and McIlroy doesn’t need to look up their names. He knows. Sarazen, Hogan, Nicklaus, Player, Woods. McIlroy is very open about wanting to win this event much more than he wants anything else in golf. Given the choice between winning two other majors or one Masters, he might take the Masters. But it seems clear at this point that what makes McIlroy so endearing—his vulnerability—is probably hurting him at Augusta.
In the only recent outing that is comparable to his search for a Masters title, McIlroy showed up to Royal Portrush in his native Northern Ireland and opened the British Open with a quadruple-bogey 8. He said that wasn’t a result of nerves. Maybe it wasn’t. But he desperately wanted to play well before his home fans, and the more McIlroy wants something, the harder it seems to be for him to achieve it.
The cruel twist to his 2020 Masters experience is that this year’s event should be made for him. When McIlroy wins, he tends to win big. When he plays his best, he plays freely, trying to make a bunch of birdies instead of worrying about bogeys. The course is soft this week. Approach shots are sticking, which means players are free to fire at pins. Scores are low. Thomas and Johnson thrive in those conditions—Thomas was the youngest player in PGA Tour history to shoot a 59, and Johnson shot a comic-book 30-under par to blow away the field at the Northern Trust Open in August. It was not surprising that they climbed to the top of the leaderboard Friday. But McIlroy should be there with them.
“I honestly have been playing so good coming in here, 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.
Did it come from 2011? From 2018? From a closet where he has never hung a green jacket? McIlroy was asked about playing the 10th here this week, and the question was not directly about 2011, but he knew it was implied. He said he is so much longer now than he was then: “It’s a 3‑wood and a 9‑iron, and hopefully a putt and move on to the 11th tee.”
More memorable than his answer was that he didn’t bristle at the question. He actually brought up 2011 himself. He is truly a golfer for the people. It is so easy to pull for McIlroy at Augusta. But I’d leave those 40-1 odds alone.