AUGUSTA, Ga. — Living conservatively, until you have no choice.
It’s a blueprint that Rory McIlroy decided to follow in this, his 14th Masters, in hopes of donning a green jacket at the end of the week.
Nothing else had worked in his previous 13 attempts and with the Masters standing between him and a career Grand Slam, McIlroy put particular emphasis on a tournament he seemed ordained to win as far back as 2011, before the wheels fell off that Sunday.
When McIlroy was 21, he came out of the blocks shooting a 7-under 65 and never looked back until that Sunday afternoon, when what should’ve been a second-nine coronation became a car wreck, with McIlroy losing control of his game and his confidence, shooting 80 and finishing T15.
It cost McIlroy his best chance to win the Masters and now, 11 years later, the Ulsterman found partial redemption while shooting an 8-under 64, earning the first runner-up finish of his Masters career and leaving the hamlet of Augusta, Georgia, salivating to return next year with a proven playbook he can follow.
“Thursday in this golf tournament is not the day to be super aggressive,” McIlroy said. “It’s a day to just hang in there and, yeah, I’ve said all week, it’s just about hanging around. That’s what this tournament is all about, hang around until you get to a spot where you feel comfortable to be aggressive, and that was where I was today.”
Aggressive and reckless are two different things. At times McIlroy has been reckless, which has resulted in either missed cuts or early Sunday finishes, far ahead of the leaders.
McIlroy focused his aggressiveness this Sunday on his second-shot aim points, aiming for fine lines with high risk-reward.
For example, he took dead aim at the flag at the par-4 first with a wedge and drained a 9-footer for birdie. Then he ripped his tee shot further left than usual on the par-5 second hole, and hit his tee shot farther right on the short par-4 third hole, where he took driver and two-putted for birdie from just off the green.
“I thought my strategy this week was really, really good,” McIlroy said with excitement in his voice. “I basically did everything I wanted this week. I think I was minus-three strokes gained on the first two days, but I played really nicely over the weekend.”
Aggressive means that not every shot goes where you want, but you persevere. On the narrow par-4 seventh, McIlroy hit his drive in the left rough and was left chipping a 7-iron on the ground between the two greenside bunkers. The ball rolled between the two bunkers and finished on the back fringe of the green, above the hole.
The bonus was making the downhill 36-footer to keep a bogey-free round intact.
“He played phenomenal golf today,” said Collin Morikawa, who played alongside McIlroy on Sunday. “He put himself in some pretty tough spots, he got out. The shot he hit on 7 today was ridiculous. Out of the trees, through the little gap. JJ (Jonathan Jakovac, Morikawa’s caddy) said he walked over there on that line and really didn’t even see a gap running it up.”
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McIlroy hit a similar shot on the par-4 14th hole. Needing to keep the ball down on the ground after another leftward tee shot, he hit his second shot to the front of the green and conjured a chip shot for his third that combined knowledge and skill. He hit the ball left of the hole and let the back slope take the ball down for a kick-in par.
It was the most complete 18 holes McIlroy may have played in his greatest career and clearly his best around the Bobby Jones/Alister McKenzie masterpiece.
And while he is drooling to return for another try at a green jacket, Sunday’s experience not only validates the work he has been putting into his game with his lifelong coach Michael Bannon, it takes doubt away as well.
It supports his decision to change golf balls this week, as he returned to a ball he played three years ago. It’s flying where he is looking.
It also doesn’t hurt that he saw par-saving putts drop that in the past he may have missed.
The biggest surge of adrenaline came from McIlroy’s visceral emotion as his bunker shot from the greenside bunker on the 18th took the slope, came back down the hill and fell in the cup.
Tossing his club in the air, McIlroy high-fived the air with both hands, then ran out of the bunker to celebrate with his caddy and good friend Harry Diamond.
It was retirement rarely seen when McIlroy has won tour events or majors. It was a total release — and it was matched when Morikawa holed his bunker shot right afterward and again McIlroy raised both hands and shined his pearly whites.
It all may be a sign that McIlroy is ready to end his major drought that extends back to his win at the 2014 PGA Championship.
“I think everything is sort of heading in the right direction, and I feel good with where my golf swing is,” McIlroy said of a round where he led the field putting, with 22 putts. “And I’m not overanalyzing it and not looking at the video too much, and it feels pretty good. The ball is basically doing what I want it to do more times than not. That’s a good thing.”
McIlroy leaves Augusta with a ton of confidence, which he hopes will build into positive results not just at the next Masters, but over the next four months with three majors and the FedEx Cup playoffs in his sights.
One last positive from Sunday: McIlroy wins a crystal vase for low round, his first since shooting 65 in the third round of the Masters in 2018.
“I don’t think I’ve ever walked away from this tournament as happy as I am today,” McIlroy said. “I’ve played a really good round of golf, and it’s my best-ever finish at Augusta. It’s not quite enough, but I’ll certainly look back on this day with very fond memories.”
More 2022 Masters Coverage From Morning Read:
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– McIlroy Leaves Augusta Happy At Last After Sunday 64
– Scheffler Aces His Major Test
– ‘Rory Roars’ Fill Augusta National as McIlroy Delights
– Tiger Woods Says He Intends to Play British Open at St. Andrews
– Woods Recognizes This Masters Was One of His Best Moments
– Final Payouts, Prize Money for Everyone in the Field
– Sports Illustrated’s Best Photos From 2022 Masters