AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | For all the Masters is about – and the enchanting elements are in place for a proper April in Augusta – it’s ultimately about the men playing.
While Bryson DeChambeau is bedazzling the brute force of power golf and Dustin Johnson saunters his way toward a possible second green jacket in five months, the two most intriguing figures in the 88-player field are Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy in their respective orbits.
Though they both drive down Magnolia Lane, they are arriving from vastly different places.
Spieth is in the midst of authoring a great golf resurrection, doggedly digging his way out of a dark spell that could have swallowed him. If his faith wavered in the quest to regain his lost artistry, Spieth never voiced it.
It was there in his face and the sagging shoulders, the residue of the weeks and months when Spieth faced the quiet desperation of chasing something with no promise of catching it.
Three months ago, Spieth was a cautionary tale. Now he’s the emotional and practical favorite to win his second Masters, a testament to his persistence and self-belief.
McIlroy, meanwhile, finds himself on the edge of where Spieth was, trusting he’s close to finding what’s gone missing. It’s not as if McIlroy has tumbled into the abyss – he’s still ranked No. 12 in the world – but the game has become more work than play.
His golf is built on an athletic artistry, a natural rhythm and feel that has separated him. But McIlroy has become too much a technician, his swing a collection of sometimes out-of-place pieces rather than grace in motion.
McIlroy recently called in instructor Pete Cowen to help him not so much get back to who he was but to get him where he needs and wants to be. The intent isn’t to chase ghosts but to let the game happen rather than trying to force it to happen.
It’s easier said than done but it can be done. Spieth is living proof.
Take all of that, lay it across a firm and fast Augusta National, and the two stories get deeper and richer.
Spieth has a green jacket. McIlroy doesn’t.
Spieth spent Tuesday night at the Champions’ Dinner, welcoming Dustin Johnson to the coolest club in golf. McIlroy spent a moment Tuesday being asked if he’s thought about what he might serve if he were to win the Masters. He didn’t bite, so to speak.
Spieth arrived at Augusta in 2014 and immediately introduced himself. In his first five Masters he finished T2, first, T2, T11 and third. Were it not for a devastating quadruple bogey at the par-3 12th on Sunday in 2016 and his tee shot clipping a pine branch on the 72nd hole in 2018, turning a likely 63 into a 64, Spieth could have three green jackets rather than one.
“It was just more like, all right, everybody chill out. It’s a hard game … I’ve never doubted that ability, and you’re going to have bounces that go your way and some that don’t.” – Jordan Spieth
At times, it has seemed as if Spieth has an almost spiritual connection with Augusta National. It’s organic, not unlike how Palmer and Nicklaus felt about the place.
Spieth’s gift is the soul with which he plays. His swing isn’t one to model except for how it works for him. He worked himself into some bad swing habits, made it worse trying to find his way back, but finally found the mechanics he could trust and his confidence came along for the ride.
He kept coming back to a slogan he saw at Gillette Stadium where the New England Patriots play. Attributed to coach Bill Belichick, the message is simple: Eliminate the noise.
Three times this year, Spieth went into the final round with at least a share of the lead, seeking an end to a winless period that dated back to the 2017 Open Championship. He didn’t win the first two chances but changed the narrative from questions to an answer at the Valero Texas Open last Easter Sunday.
“I felt the progression coming, and I was patient with it. But you get one 54-hole lead, and everyone thinks you’re supposed to win right away, when you haven’t had a 54-hole lead in a long time,” Spieth said.
“It was just more like, all right, everybody chill out. It’s a hard game, and I’ve done a really good job closing in my career. I’ve never doubted that ability, and you’re going to have bounces that go your way and some that don’t.”
Pre-pandemic, McIlroy was regarded as the best player in the world regardless of what the world rankings said. He played with confidence and conviction. A year later, McIlroy needs to rebuild those essentials.
There is a technical reason for his scattershot ball-striking and he already feels better about that part of the process. Could it all come together this week? That’s optimistic but not improbable.
McIlroy and Augusta National have a complicated history. The Masters is the one major championship he needs to complete the career Grand Slam but he has been unable to stack four good rounds together.
In November, he shot 75 in what was the lowest scoring first round in history. In 2018, he shot 74 in the final pairing with champion Patrick Reed. Sitting second after 36 holes in 2015, McIlroy shot 77 on Saturday. Then there is the 80 when he led starting Sunday in 2011. He plays the Masters with trapdoors.
It’s easy to project McIlroy in a green jacket, a fixture for decades in the Masters Club dinner, but he still must make it happen. He has come to Augusta almost quietly this year, almost as if he’s being given space to work his way back into form with the expectations he admittedly wrestled with at times here.
“I’m trying to see the big picture here,” McIlroy said. “I’m obviously focused on this week, but it’s bigger than that. It’s a journey, right, and it’s a journey to try to get back to playing the game the way I know that I can play the game.
“So obviously this week is very important, but I’m still looking beyond that. I’m just at the start of a journey here that I know will get me back to where I want to be.”
At the Masters, all roads lead to Magnolia Lane – no matter the route getting there.
Top: Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth come to the Masters in far different states of mind and form. Photo by Jamie Squire, Getty Images
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