“It’s a marriage. If I had to choose between my wife and my putter, well, I’d miss her.” – Gary Player
RORY McIlroy knows where Gary Player is coming from. Having separated from his old putting technique in January, he has been locked in an embrace with his new one ever since. And yet still the old problems remain.
When he’s hot, he’s untouchable and on Thursday and Friday at Augusta, the Ulsterman was on song, trailing Jordan Spieth – the second round leader – by just a stroke heading into Saturday.
Saturday, of course, is also known as moving day in the Majors, yet the only direction McIlroy moved was south, down the leaderboard.
By Sunday, he was out of it, before he could even consider getting into it. And even though he finished with four birdies in the last six holes, the damage had already been done. With the Masters, Danny Willett didn’t win it, Spieth and McIlroy lost it.
“I’ve got a great game for here,” McIlroy said in the run-up to the event. “I can hit it high, I can land the ball soft, I’ve got decent touch around the greens. The only thing that has probably held me back in my career, and here, is putting.”
The nonchalant way he described it would make you believe putting was just a part of golf – rather than being the difference between good and great, tenth and first. Over the course of his week at Augusta, McIlroy averaged 1.71 putts per hole, compared to Willett, whose average was 1.58 and Spieth, who fared even better than the 2016 champion, averaging 1.56.
In fact, 51 players would fare better than McIlroy with a putter in their hands, even though the Ulsterman managed one eagle and 16 birdies over the course of the week. It was the 15 bogeys and two double bogeys that did the damage – his putter being largely at fault.
But it wasn’t the only club that let him down. On Saturday, for once, his driver forced him to visit more trees than a lumberjack en route to a 77.
Just seven out of 14 fairways were found in that round. By Sunday, he had corrected that anomaly, hitting 12 out of 14 fairways.
And the impression remains that from tee to green, he has what it takes to win here – indeed to win anywhere. Yet once the pressure comes on, he doesn’t appear to be able to handle it.
“I’ve been in position before and I haven’t got the job done when I needed to and I don’t think that’s anything to do with my game, I think that’s more me mentally,” McIlroy said. “I’m trying to deal with the pressure of it and the thrill of the achievement if it were to happen. I think that’s the thing that’s really holding me back.
“Once I overcome that mental hurdle that I’m struggling with at the minute, then I know how to play this course. I’ve played this course very well before and I can string good rounds together here, but it’s just a matter of doing it.”
If only it was that simple. Yet with McIlroy and Augusta, it never has been. Remember 2011? He can never forget it. Leading by four entering the final round, he fell apart on the 10th when his snap hook veered so far off course, it almost ended up in the next state. If that was bad, his subsequent reaction – missing eight putts from inside seven feet on the back nine – was even worse.
And that has set the tone for his Masters journey. He can tear up the course – finishing 15 under par for the concluding 45 holes last year – but can also scramble to survive.
And it pains him. “The Masters is the one I want to win more than anything else,” he said.
“I feel like I’m a good enough player, I feel like I’ve got everything I need to become a Masters champion. But I think each and every year that passes that I don’t, it will become increasingly difficult.”
That certainly seems the case. Having finished 25th in 2013, eighth in 2014 and fourth last year, his 10th place finish last week suggests he has the ability but not yet the temperament to deal with his demons.
“Half of golf is fun; the other half is putting,” golf author Peter Dobereiner once said. And it is so painfully true. Quite why, then, McIlroy – a four-time Major winner and long-time world number one – needed to change his putting grip or lose some flexibility in his swing by undergoing such a regimented gym programme is anyone’s guess.
Has it helped him? This failure to complete a career Grand Slam would suggest not.
“I have come here to get something that I should have had a long time ago,” he said. But it didn’t happen. “The wait goes on.”
It may ever end.