AUGUSTA, Ga. — Anyone who walks along the 10th hole at Augusta National Golf Club has only to go a few steps and look left to consider something amazing. How a professional golfer could hit a shot so poorly to land amid those cabins is mind boggling.
It sure boggled the psyche of Rory McIlroy, the one who hit it there while he had a seemingly insurmountable lead in the final round of the 2011 Masters. That shot touched off an epic meltdown that remains vivid in his mind seven years later, now that he is trying to come at the green jacket from a different angle.
He is trailing by three shots heading into the final round, rather than ahead by four as he was then. McIlroy also has won four major championships and needs only the Masters to achieve golf immortality for having won the career Grand Slam.
“I’ve been waiting for this chance, to be honest,” he said after having shot 7-under-par 65 in the third round to finish at 11 under, three behind Patrick Reed. “I’ve always said that 2011 was a huge turning point in my career. It was the day that I realized I wasn’t ready to win major championships, and I needed to reflect on that and realize what I needed to do differently.
“But now I am ready,” he said. “I learned a lot from it. I’m happy to be in the final group. Obviously, I’m not in the lead like I was going into that day, so I probably don’t have as much pressure. I don’t have to protect anything, which is a great position to be in.”
That might or might not be so. We will find out by Sunday evening. Only McIlroy knows if he was sincere or just trying to play a mind game with Reed. For the most part, the young man from Northern Ireland does get the benefit of the doubt because he has a history of being earnest. He never has had trouble looking in the mirror.
The fact he has embraced his failure in 2011, when he still was a wunderkind without a single major on his resume, speaks to his honesty and maturity. He is in the same mode as Jordan Spieth, who referred the other day to his own meltdown here in 2016 and said he always will have Augusta National “demons.”
McIlroy was forthright Saturday in admitting his 65, which tied with Rickie Fowler and Jon Rahm for the best round here this week, was not all of his own doing. “I rode my luck a little bit out there,” he said.
There was the shot from the fairway bunker on No. 5 that clipped the lip but kept going to the green. He fired a hot pitch shot on No. 8 that nipped the pin and went in. He found his ball among the azaleas to the left on No. 13 (“It was a sea of pink,” he said). He pointed out that he received a favorable bounce off a tree on No. 18, helping him make the birdie that allowed him to walk off the course with a fist pump.
So, if he says he thinks the pressure is all on Reed, fine. Nothing says we have to agree. Truth is, McIlroy could not even get himself to mention the career slam in his news conference Saturday. He said, “Patrick is going for his first and I’m going for something else.”
An easy assumption seven years ago was that McIlroy would have many more chances to win the Masters, but who knows if that is so? People used to say that about Arnold Palmer and the PGA, about Phil Mickelson and the U.S. Open. Neither of them climbed the height McIlroy can reach on Sunday. So, he will have pressure. It will be fun to see how he deals with it.
The best thing he has going for him is not his collection of major trophies but his memory of Augusta scars. “I’ve got a lot of experience in these positions and experience that I’ve learned from, good and bad,” he said Saturday evening. “And I feel like all of those experiences will help me tomorrow.”