AUSTIN, Texas – If there’s one thing PGA Tour players hate, it’s out-of-the-moment thinking. Nothing sends a play-for-pay type into a spiral faster than a stray thought that only complicates the here and now. But, around this time of year, there is one inescapable thought:
No matter how hard they might try, the Masters is always lingering, just inside the boundaries of conscious thought.
“Obviously this part of the season you've got one eye on what you're doing now and one eye on Augusta,” Rory McIlroy said with a shrug following a Day 1 victory at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “It's trying to do both.”
McIlroy could play the game and dance around the obvious but at this point in his career, what’s the use? The green jacket is the only Grand Slam trinket missing from the Northern Irishman’s CV and everything he does – from reverting to an older model putter to shortening his driver shaft – is done with Augusta National on his mind.
Matches and scoring from the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship
Of course, he wants to play well this week at Austin Country Club and his opening 3-and-1 victory over Scott Stallings was an encouraging start. McIlroy would also like to put his missed cut at The Players Championship out of his mind and dial in a driver that hasn’t felt right since he traded in his previous gamer last month in Los Angeles.
“It's hard because you look at strokes gained: off the tee and you would think that I'm driving the ball well or I have been driving the ball well. Then you look at my driving accuracy and it's down around 50 percent, which is quite low for me,” he explained. “I'm hitting the ball a long way, so strokes gained maybe overvalues length sometimes, depending on the course.”
McIlroy is sixth this season in strokes gained: off the tee, picking up nearly a full stroke (.845) on the field. But he’s 186th in driving accuracy, which prompted him to go to a shorter driver shaft this week (44 inches, from 44 1/2). On Wednesday against Stallings, McIlroy’s accuracy continued to lag (he hit six of 13 fairways), but he also continued to pick up shots (1.34) and was second in the field in strokes gained: off the tee.
In addition to his change off the tee, he also made one on the greens, switching to a Scotty Cameron Newport-style putter, similar to the one he used to win the 2011 U.S. Open.
“I just think what I'm trying to do with lining the ball up, the line on the top instead of on the flange matches up a little bit better for me,” he said.
Winning the final edition of the WGC-Match Play, hitting more fairways, making more putts – it’s what any professional wants. But in late March with the year’s first major just a fortnight away, the need to perform and execute is of increased importance.
Having come up short so many times at Augusta National, it would be perfectly understandable if McIlroy opted for a more evasive approach when it comes to the Masters. But that’s not really his style.
Instead, he made a scouting trip to Augusta National last week with Shane Lowry and their fathers and, according to various reports, had a particularly impressive round that included just 19 putts.
“I had two good days,” McIlroy offered with a wry smile. “We played 54 holes in two days and it was good. I was really happy with where my game was. It was sort of good to see that after struggling at The Players.”
Depending on your outlook, McIlroy’s record at Augusta National is either filled with heartbreak or offers hope. He’s finished inside the top 10 in seven of his 14 trips to the Masters, including last year’s runner-up finish to Scottie Scheffler. He tied for fifth in 2018 and again in ’20 and has spent a decade trying to forget his Sunday meltdown at the ’11 tournament. It remains the only major that’s eluded him.
McIlroy called last week’s trip to Augusta more pleasure than business, but then “work” is never far from his mind at Augusta National, like when his group gathered last Tuesday evening with Scheffler, who made the trip to Georgia the day after winning The Players. “It was nice, you know, nice Players victory, nice green jacket,” McIlroy laughed.
It's just one of countless reminders that the Masters looms large and there’s no sense in trying to convince yourself otherwise.