What went wrong for Rory McIlroy at this year’s Masters? Little mistakes that became insurmountable

Another week in Augusta, Georgia, and another disappointing drive down Magnolia Lane for Rory McIlroy.

After multiple scouting trips, a putter change to embrace more feel and a shorter driver shaft to prioritize the short grass, the 33-year-old Northern Irishman is headed home after rounds of 72-77.

The 2023 Masters was supposed to be different.

McIlroy entered the week in great form, finishing third at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, a week that included a win over world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler. He also came close at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, missing a putt on the 72nd hole to potentially force a playoff with Kurt Kitayama.

His final round in 2022 — a bogey-free 8-under 64 — was to serve as a springboard into a historical week.

“I felt last year that I maybe shed some of that scar tissue and felt like I sort of made breakthroughs,” McIlroy said early in the week. “I’m feeling as sort of relaxed as I ever have coming in here just in terms of I feel like my game is in a pretty good place. I know the place just about as well as anyone.”

Masters 2023 leaderboard: Get the latest news from Augusta

So what went wrong?

On Thursday, it was a roller coaster. A great par save on No. 1 and a birdie at No. 2 filled golf fans around the world with promise. McIlroy immediately gave the birdie back on the short par-4 third and then made double-bogey six at No. 7. He’d trade circles for squares all the way into the clubhouse for an opening round 72.

Despite the even-par effort, he felt close.

“I didn’t feel like I was too far away today. I made five birdies but just a couple of too many mistakes on the card.”

Rory McIlroy reacts after a putt on the second green during the first round of The Masters golf tournament. Mandatory Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Network

Unfortunately, mistakes reared their ugly head once again on Day 2.

Through seven holes McIlroy was 4 over, and all of a sudden his pursuit for a green jacket turned into one for a weekend tee time.

After a water ball on 11, all hope was seemingly lost.

However, an easy birdie at the par-5 13th put him just two shots off the projected cut line. Then, at the 15th, McIlroy stripped a long iron to five feet.

His new Scotty Cameron failed him, and McIlroy had to settle for birdie.

Now at 3 over, the four-time major champion needed to play the final three holes even par to have any hope of making the weekend.

After a fantastic chip shot from behind the 16th green, McIlroy failed to convert a four-foot par putt, the proverbial nail in his Masters’ coffin.

Strokes Gained data

SG: Off the Tee

SG: Approach

SG: Around the Green

SG: Putting

A conquering of Augusta National Golf Club is what separates McIlroy from the career grand slam, a fraternity with only five members. A Masters win would instantly separate McIlroy from his counterparts, but he’ll have to wait for 2024.

Next year will mark his 10th attempt at the slam. The five players who have accomplished the feat — Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods — all did it within three tries.

In 12 months McIlroy will be 34, still on the right side of his prime. Time is on his side but with each passing year the expectation grows. Pressure will build and the mental aspect will become even more taxing.

But many believe McIlroy will endure and one day slip on the green jacket, including his childhood hero.

“He will. It’s just a matter of time,” said Tiger Woods. “Rory has the talent. He has the game. He has all the tools to win here. It’s just a matter of time.

“A lot of things have to happen to win at this golf course. A lot of things have to go right. I think Rory has shown over the years he’s learned how to play this golf course, and you just have to understand how to play it.

“He’s been there. Last year he made a great run, put himself there. But I think that it’s just a matter of time, whether it’s this year or next or whenever it comes, he will get it done, and he will have a career grand slam. It’s just what year it will be; it will definitely happen.”

The wait — and anticipation — for 2024 begins now.

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