When he needed it the most, Rory McIlroy just didn't have it

Rory Mc Ilroy 2018 Masters

There are two conclusions to draw from the 2018 Masters.

One: Patrick Reed appears to have completed his apprenticeship in pantomime villainy. Two: completing the career grand slam is not easy.

Neither is especially revelatory.

If popularity was wealth, Reed's wallet would be light. If career grand slams were easy to win, more than five players would have done so.

Rory McIlroy could have become the sixth yesterday.

Easy to say. Hard to do.

Starting the final round of The Masters with a three-shot deficit to make up on Reed, many expected – assumed, even – that McIlroy would end the day with a green jacket and admission to the pantheon of golf immortality.

By the close of play, there was nothing new for his wardrobe and the door to history remained locked and bolted for at least another year.

In near-perfect scoring conditions, particularly for so aggressive a player, McIlroy laboured to a 74. He was one of only 11 players who failed to break par on the final day. Only four of the 53 players who played on Sunday fared worse than he did. The field average was 70.5.

Rory Mc Ilroy Masters 2018 2

Of those who finished in the top 25, McIlroy’s final round was the joint worst.

Reed, by contrast, closed with a one-under 71. The harsh truth is that McIlroy didn’t make him work hard enough for it. Rickie Fowler applied some pressure. So too Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm. They, however, had  too much ground to make up.

Rory, though.

He will know that a 67, on a soft, receptive course, with pin positions he has seen many times before, would have got the job done.

Easy to say. Hard to do.

Even harder when you’re not driving the ball well. After hitting 12 of 14 fairways in a confident opening round, McIlroy hit only eight on the last day. He trailed the field in driving accuracy in all bar the first round.

Sure, he hits it miles – he was fourth in driving distance across the tournament – but explosive power is only as good as the chances you convert. Case in point, the short eagle putt he missed on the par-5 second.

Compare and contrast that with Reed, who holed for birdie from the edge of the green on the third. McIlroy had ten feet for par. He missed. Quite literally at a stroke, the advantage Reed started the day with was restored. And that, as it turned out, was the tournament right there.

An icy cold putter hardly helped. Having led the putting average stats on Saturday (and quite comfortably so), McIlroy was joint 42nd on the greens on Sunday. Speaking of greens, he hit 43 in regulation all week. Right in the middle of the pack.

It would be easy – too easy – to dismiss Rory’s Sunday travails as just one of those things, a bad day at the office, a case of luck deserting him, and such like.

That may well be truth. Or maybe, just maybe, the Northern Irishman got his preparation wrong.

The gentle barbs he threw in Reed’s general direction on Saturday evening - “The pressure is all on him” etc – were entertaining. Being last to arrive on the first tee in the final round was a classic power move ripped straight from the pages of The Tiger Woods Manual Of Cunning And Connivery.

Rory Mc Ilroy 2018 Masters 3

Trouble is, it appeared to affect McIlroy more than Reed. Perhaps in attempting to get under his opponent’s skin, he forgot the golden rule of gamesmanship: never get under your own.

Easy to say. Hard to do.

From the moment he sent his opening tee shot careening towards the  boundaries of the property, McIlroy burnt energy like kindling. He seemed twitchy, nervous, agitated, hurried, and legitimately so given what was at stake. Yet he was unable to seize the momentum, which ebbed and flowed in the early holes.

By early in the back nine, he looked spent. His race was run with a sloppy bogey at the eleventh. The head went down. The body language was as easy to interpret as it ever is with McIlroy: I’ve blown this.

It was, in a lot of ways, like watching Andy Murray in his first few grand slam finals. Too many unforced errors; too much energy needlessly expelled. When Murray started to play his opponent and not the occasion, he started to win. Perhaps that's what McIlroy needs to master to win The Masters, understanding that the outcome is the product of the process.

And so begins a long wait for McIlroy until next year’s Masters. Yet that must surely be the crumb of comfort he can nibble on today and in the days to come: there will be other Masters.

He’s 28. Assuming he stays fit and healthy, he’ll have another 20-odd goes at this.

Rory Mc Ilroy 2018 Masters 4

It’s not as though he doesn’t have the mental strength and experience to do it. He’s won four majors, 14 times on the PGA Tour and 13 on the European Tour. He’s been world No.1 for almost two of the 11 years he’s been a professional. He’s won Ryder Cups, topped money lists, swept Order of Merits.

He’s also played Augusta for a decade. He’s made the cut nine times out of ten and has finished in the top ten in each of his last five visits.

Rory McIlroy has got absolutely everything required to be a Masters champion. And now, if you care to spin another positive from yesterday, he’s got a demon to exorcise.

Augusta has stung him before. In 2011, he surrendered a four-shot final round lead and closed with an 80, squandering hopes of first major title. He subsequently went to the US Open two months later and won by eight.

If “beware the wounded golfer” is anything more than a cliché, Augusta National should ready itself for Rory’s return in 2019.

And, by extension of that logic, next year may well be his year.

But that, of course, is easy to say.

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