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The Masters is McIlroy’s missing link

Rory McIlroy Rory McIlroy - The Canadian Press

It’s like getting to the end of a jigsaw puzzle and having one piece missing. Or putting together a piece of furniture and realizing you’re one bolt short.

For Rory McIlroy, this is the feeling he gets when he looks at his major championship record.

U.S. Open? Check.

PGA Championship? Check

Open Championship? Check

Masters? Nope.

It’s been 10 years since McIlroy captured the third leg of golf’s Grand Slam, winning the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. It seemed as if it would be fait accompli to round things out with a Masters win. Here was a young, aggressive, immensely talented player who seemed to have no difficulty in winning major championships.

But after capturing the PGA Championship for a second time in 2014, his major totals have stalled at four and his chances at getting a green jacket have been positively frustrating.

Since 2015, he’s finished inside the top 10 six times but can’t seem to find the right gear to run through the tape. Still, he remains optimistic.

“I feel like I am as good, if not better a player, as I was the last time I won a major championship,” McIlroy said ahead of last year’s Masters. “So, I'm feeling pretty good about it.”

His game has remained solid over the past decade. Since his last major title, the 34-year-old has won 15 times on the PGA Tour and six more times on the DP World Tour. He’s also spent 83 weeks ranked as the No. 1 player in the world and, with a few brief exceptions, remained inside the top 10.

There have been close calls for McIlroy at Augusta National. In 2011, the 21-year-old with a mop of hair spilling out of his cap had the lead as he stood on the 10th tee on Sunday. But a snap-hook that went in between two cabins far to the left of the fairway started a collapse that was painful to witness. He made a triple-bogey seven on the 10th and, after dunking a ball in Rae’s Creek on the 12th hole, logged a double-bogey five. He eventually signed for a round of 80 and had to settle for a tie for 15th place.

It was a harsh way to finish at the time, but looking back on it, McIlroy said the size of the blow-up was an invaluable lesson.

“If I had not had the whole unravelling, if I had just made a couple of bogeys coming down the stretch and lost by one,” he told the BBC a year later, “I would not have learned as much.”

He added that it’s easier to get over such a disastrous loss when you can look at your trophy cabinet and see the trophies of four other major championships.

Two years ago, he finished second to Scottie Scheffler although he was never really a threat to win. Still, his round of 64 on Sunday was his lowest on Augusta National and shows what he can do on the Alister MacKenzie design when he’s synched up without a full dose of pressure riding on him.

Trying to pin down one reason why McIlroy hasn’t been able to capture the Masters is like playing whack-a-mole. Find one problem, and another one pops up. Prepare one way and when it doesn’t work, choose another.

Statistically, part of the issue has been the first round. The Northern Irishman has never been a fast starter at Augusta National, breaking 70 just twice in 15 starts. It’s turned him into a bit of a leaderboard watcher, something he avoids at most other tournaments. Last year, he found himself gazing at just how far back he was in the early going.

“Brooks [Koepka] got off to that really hot start, and he was on the eighth green on Friday morning, and I was on the first green," McIlroy said on the SubPar podcast. "And I think I was even par for the tournament, and Brooks had just birdied the eighth to go to 10-under for the tournament, so I’m already 10 shots back and I already feel like I need to chase, and I need to, like, do something.”

Other than the back nine on Sunday, chasing has never proven to be a good recipe at Augusta National, where big numbers are plentiful for those who aren’t fully engaged.

It’s something that’s taken McIlroy some time to learn. He has the swing, the shots and the skills to beat the rest of the field at any time. Rather than a physical roadblock, he views it more as something different.

“I would say the majority of it is mental or emotional struggles rather than physical,” he said. “I've always felt like I have the physical ability to win this tournament. But it's being in the right head space to let those physical abilities shine through.”

This year, his approach has been to come into Augusta having played more tournaments than usual, giving him a sense of knowing where his swing is and being game-ready. He will have played in eight tournaments before the Masters, two more than a year earlier.

“I feel like I've got all the ingredients,” McIlroy stated. “It's just about putting them all together over the four days.”

It might all come together this year or he may go another round without a victory. There’s no guarantee that just because he seems to have the game to play well at Augusta National, that he can put together four rounds better than any other player on one particular year. Lots of players before him, such as Greg Norman or Ernie Els, have failed in their many attempts when they seemed to be perfect fits for green jackets.

“There've been players before that it’s been said this course is tailor-made for [them] and they haven't gone on to win a green jacket,” McIlroy stated. “That's always on my mind, too. It's not just because a place is deemed perfectly set up for your game, it doesn't automatically mean that you're going to win it one day. There's more to it than that. There's also been players that you would think this golf course wouldn't set up well for them, and they have gone on and won a green jacket.”

Put this all together and it means there is no secret formula to winning the Masters. McIlroy, like all those champions before him, will just have to find the perfect alignment of technique, course knowledge, psychology and luck. It’s how every tournament is won.

Especially the Masters.