Rory McIlroy left to wonder what might have been at The Masters

Jack Rathborn
Rory McIlroy made a fine start in Mexico: Getty

We are a year removed from the most magical of weeks at Augusta when Tiger Woods clinched immortality by winning The Masters to end 11 arduous years without a major. While most could scarcely believe Woods was even in the thick of the action on the back nine on Sunday once again, there was equal astonishment when Brooks Koepka, Tony Finau and Francesco Molinari collectively crumbled on the 12th hole by finding water in a compelling final round.

If 2019 gifted the sport one last chapter in the legendary career of perhaps its greatest ever player, then the 2020 version of the tournament had the potential to confirm the heir to the throne as the face of the sport, with injury and relief at winning No 15 taking the edge off Woods.

World No 1 Rory McIlroy appears primed for just that and under normal circumstances would this week be nervously anticipating his latest opportunity to join the elite company of Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods as the only players to have completed the career grand slam.

Instead, Augusta, perfectly pruned in front of its traditional spring backdrop, will have to wait a little longer for the roars to return after the coronavirus forced its postponement.

After a hasty and perhaps desperate - given The Open admitted defeat with its outright cancellation - reshuffle of the sport’s calendar, The Masters is now pencilled in from 12-15 November. The familiarity with the intricacies of the property in its usual slot may be somewhat lost for those watching later this year, while there is the potential for the course to play a little firmer and faster in the autumn.

McIlroy has been in outstanding form (Getty)

The sudden stop to golf has evidently brought an abrupt halt to McIlroy’s sizzling form though, perhaps denying us the conclusion of another great comeback in this corner of Georgia.

The Irishman has already impressed by bouncing back from the gut-wrenching missed cut at Portrush last summer to seize the richest prize in golf at the FedEx Cup. But, at a time when he has never felt as “comfortable with all facets of my game,” The Masters represented a chance to complete the cycle and elevate him to an even loftier status.

His form has seen him secure four straight top-five finishes on the PGA Tour this year, taking down Koepka at the top of the world rankings. The American's relentless assault on the majors has been interrupted by the “excruciating” pain of a torn patella tendon last year.

And while many would have been salivating at the prospect of the pair duelling their way around Augusta this week, it may still have been a more uncomfortable experience for Koepka. “Still s***,” was the brutal conclusion from the Floridian as recently as March. Last month’s visit to the legendary coach Butch Harmon in Las Vegas brings hope he will rediscover his game soon though. And while the postponement of The Masters has denied McIlroy a great chance at No 5 for now, it appears to have gifted Koepka one more opportunity of his own this year at a fifth major.

McIlroy, who has shown no signs of his spirit dimming at his Jupiter mansion while self-isolating by posting trick shots on social media, rejects any suggestion of an obsession with conquering Augusta.

“The game still doesn’t owe me anything and I wouldn’t want it to,” McIlroy told the Guardian. “I want to go out and learn everything.

“If I don’t win it [The Masters], I don’t win it. It’s not a life-changer for me. It’s a golf tournament. It would be awesome and would put me in a place, in the game that I play, of very rare company. Wonderful.

“But I’m not going to cry myself to sleep if I don’t. I think people want to believe it consumes me but it doesn’t. That’s the truth.”

So while there will be no Green Jacket this week, a more mature McIlroy looks primed to lean on this mentality to know that maybe, come November, he will finally fulfil his destiny.

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