Optimist Rory McIlroy hopes Masters can inspire return of old glories

If he hadn’t seen such riches he could live with being poor. Any assessment of a run for Rory McIlroy without claiming a major championship – which has now stretched to six years and eight months – comes with yearning. McIlroy at his best provides sporting masterpiece.

McIlroy won two of his four majors thus far by eight shots. Albeit the margin of victory at the 2014 Open Championship was far smaller, McIlroy controlled that event from start to finish. Just weeks later at the US PGA Championship, the ease with which he recovered from a mid-round Sunday position of three shots behind highlighted fortitude to match skill. At that point, 10 August 2014, there was a legitimate sense of McIlroy dominating golf for a prolonged period.

McIlroy may scoff at the questioning of where it has all gone wrong since. He has been world No 1 and won 11 times across the PGA and European Tours since exiting Valhalla. At just 31, even with an emerging breed of fearless younger professionals making their mark, McIlroy is entitled to believe there is plenty cause for optimism.

And yet, before the recent Players Championship, McIlroy was hit with a question that had cause to knock him off balance. “Do you ever feel like the best of your career might be behind you?” McIlroy smiled, suggesting he knew only too well that such discussion surrounds him. “No,” McIlroy said. “I don’t think you can ever think that. You have to be an eternal optimist in this game, and I truly believe that my best days are ahead of me. You have to believe that.

“There’s no point in me being out here if I didn’t think that. That’s just not part of my psyche or anyone’s psyche out here. I think that’s the difference between people that make it to the elite level and the people that don’t, because they don’t think that way. I certainly believe that my best days are ahead of me and I’m working hard to make sure that they are.” And work hard he does, at a level often under‑appreciated by onlookers.

McIlroy went on to comprehensively miss the cut at Sawgrass, with predictions of doom for his Masters chances only intensified by a thrashing from Ian Poulter at the WGC Match Play. Lost in deep-rooted analysis of McIlroy’s adversity is the fact he will return to Augusta National this week with another opportunity to join the select group of male golfers who have won every major.

McIlroy’s career highlights a great ability to deliver stunning reactions. Had he finished 31st at the Players and made the last eight of the Match Play, there would be no apparent need for a bounce back. Instead, he has plenty to draw on. Capitulation at the 2011 Masters was followed up by victory in the US Open. More elongated struggles in 2013 preceded great success the following year. McIlroy was bruised by missing the cut at his home Open, in Portrush in 2019; his response took him to FedEx Cup glory and world No 1. As Padraig Harrington put it: “Rory is only ever one shot away from playing great.” No player can flick the switch like McIlroy.

McIlroy’s present scenario is unusual because here we have such a natural artist in the grip of a technical malaise. McIlroy has turned to the renowned coach Pete Cowen to help him rediscover feels within his swing. McIlroy dates his problems back to late last year, when Bryson DeChambeau’s battering of Winged Foot into submission at the US Open began a quest to add more length to game. McIlroy was not a short hitter to begin with.

There are two obvious dangers attached to the formalising of McIlroy’s long-time relationship with Cowen. It could be that matters relating to the swing dominate and muddle McIlroy’s mind. It is also fair to ask where McIlroy can turn if Cowen doesn’t deliver the improvement the pair seek. Yet the straight-talking Yorkshireman has a record that speaks for itself; the smart money would be on this alliance bearing fruit. But when, of course, is the key question. This Masters is unusual in respect of the question marks which hover above the form of so many of the tournament’s marquee names.

After a poor first round in November, McIlroy roared back at Augusta with scores of 66, 67 and 69. This delivered a sixth top 10 in seven Masters starts. In short, he can clearly handle this golf course. The great unknown is whether McIlroy yet has enough trust in his current swing to eliminate the kind of shots that ruin tilts at a Green Jacket.

McIlroy has no issue about being judged by different standards to most other golfers. He will realise that with a week to go until the Masters, sitting 11th in the world rankings – behind, among others, Patrick Cantlay, Webb Simpson and Tyrrell Hatton – represents a ridiculous state of affairs on the basis of talent alone. It is entirely possible Augusta National itself will summon a much-needed level of comfort for McIlroy. For all his woes in 2021, it would be a fool that counts him out of Masters permutations.