McIlroy at the World Matchplay: ‘The short stick was again the sword upon which he fell as his hopes perished in a fog of frustration’
IF there are dissenting voices around his fondness for heavy gym work, it is a different kind of crushing weight that requires urgent lifting from Rory McIlroy’s shoulders.
It is the one measuring the mental burden piling mightily upon the Irishman’s muscled torso on Masters eve, an anxiety that must feel as pulverising as an entire copse of Augusta pines crashing down atop his bulked-up 5’7” frame.
The source is not the hand of history pressing heavily as he seeks to join the quintet of immortals who count the crown jewel of a career Grand Slam among their treasures.
Nor is it the nagging fear – expressed most vocally by Nick Faldo – that McIlroy’s self-declared obsession with lifting 300lb weights might harm a golf swing gifted by the gods.
Neither does it come from fifth anniversary memories of his infamous, mortifying Amen Corner meltdown even as the engraver was preparing to etch his name into Masters lore.
Or even – by his exalted standards – from a prosaic Augusta record, one which last year’s final-round charge from oblivion to fourth with a closing 66 can’t remotely paper over.
It is not the weight of extraordinary deeds whispering down the years or the hunger to add his own chapter to epic tales penned at this enchanted corner of the golfing universe.
Rather, the World Number Three is wobbling under the stresses and strain of a growing terror.
It is the one that says that the voices – both inside his head and behind the social media loudhailer – screaming that his flaky putting is more likely to be rewarded with a red face than a Green Jacket might not be silenced this week.
McIlroy will venture down the botanic wonderland of Magnolia Lane without a win on American soil for 11 months, an eternity for a player of his standing.
So far this season, he has been a shadow of the old titan of the fairways.
On the greens he too frequently displays a lack of conviction more appropriate to a Sunday morning hacker.
If McIlroy’s driving and iron-play remain a work of art, his putting is vandalising the masterpiece of his long game, a scribbled moustache on the lip of the Mona Lisa.
While his great rivals have transformed the spring months into their personal feasting hall, McIlroy has had to settle for the crumbs of one Top Ten finish from six stroke play starts.
If, in recent weeks, the cup has looked as broad as a lunar crater to Jason Day and Adam Scott, its 4.25 inch dimension has resembled the eye of a needle to McIlroy.
Even in advancing to the semi-final in his WGC Match Play defence last weekend, the same flashing hazard lights were still blinking furiously.
The short stick was again the sword upon which he fell as his hopes perished in a fog of frustration.
Three times in a titanic tussle with Day, McIlroy missed hole-winning opportunities from within eight feet.
For golfers operating at near genius level, that is the equivalent of squandering a trio of penalty kicks.
Day, meanwhile, illustrated the old putt-for-dough truism by taking just 23 short-stick jabs over the 18 holes.
When that showdown with the new World Number One is lost on the very last hole, the brilliance of McIlroy’s general play undone by his putting, the torment only grows.
The Ulsterman retreated afterward behind a mountain of positive-thinking soundbites, but a recent radical grip-change has done little to ease his suffering on the greens.
The stark truth is that the 26-year-old – always a streaky putter, prone to debilitating periods – is conceding several strokes a week to his rivals.
In the 10-15 feet distance, McIlroy ranks 129th on the PGA Tour in putts converted; from the even more critical distance of 5-10 feet, he lags in a lowly, startling 155th.
At the elite level, where the margins are tiny, it is like arriving at the O.K Corral with an empty holster.
All the more so when his rivals appear laden down with an endless arsenal of silver bullets.
Day – exhibiting the certainty of the most recent major winner – has won on each of the past two weeks, the Australian resembling Achilles, except with armour-plated heels.
Scott, his resurgent countryman, went back-to-back before that, a timely reminder of his 2013 Green Jacket heroics.
Bubba Watson, a course-and-distance specialist at Augusta, tuned up with a commanding performance at Riviera.
Rickie Fowler, the Johnny Depp lookalike chasing his first major, was an impressive champion in the Middle East.
And if Jordan Spieth has cooled off from his 2015 season for the ages – one which brought two major titles before his 22nd birthday – he can still point to a 2016 win in Hawaii.
Before last weekend, McIlroy’s form-line – 26th, 11th, 20th, Missed Cut, 3rd, 27th – was that of some anonymous mid-ranking pro rather than the game’ sstellar talent.
During his 11-month American famine, the superstars he is more used to keeping company with, Day, Fowler and Spieth have won 14 times worldwide.
Heading to the marble staircases of Augusta National infected by even a thimble of putting doubts is as dangerous as ascending Everest while overwhelmed by vertigo.
Yet that is the immense burden, the weight-on-the-shoulder McIlroy – 13/2 second favourite, more on reputation than form – is being asked to carry.
It all suggests that should he be successful in lifting the few ounces the Green Jacket weighs around his shoulders next Sunday, it will be the standout bench-press of his young life.