AUGUSTA, GA. – Rory McIlroy struts like he won the lottery and hasn’t thought about the taxes. He swings his arms like a mall-walker, shoulders back, head up, chatting and smiling with his playing partners.
His score book is emblazoned with the nickname “RORS.” His driver’s head cover is a St. Bernard. He still bears the mien of a lighthearted kid, even as he nears 30.
When McIlroy walked off the second green during a practice round at Augusta National on Wednesday, a husband tapped his wife on the shoulder and said, “You’ve seen God!”
If McIlroy wins the Masters this week, he will deserve a couple of lowercase g’s — completing the career grand slam is an achievement achieved only by golfing gods.
McIlroy is trying to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods as winners of the modern career grand slam. He hasn’t won a major since 2014.
The biggest question about McIlroy during his major drought has been whether golf is important enough to him. Now, after his stellar play to start the year, the question is whether it has to be.
He doesn’t seem to think so. This week he spoke of meditating and juggling, of his desire to win the Masters and his unwillingness to let desire become obsession.
“I keep saying this,” McIlroy said. “I would dearly love to win this tournament one day. If it doesn’t happen this week, that’s totally fine. I’ll come back next year and have another crack at it. But I’m happy with where everything is, body, mind, game.”
He’s spoken of not wanting to be defined by golf, which is difficult when golf has made you rich as a pharaoh and famous as a movie star.
But McIlroy’s approach isn’t that different from many greats. What’s different is his willingness to admit it.
Woods was wrongly judged to be a golf obsessive. Now we know that he considered quitting to become a Navy SEAL and that he partook in plenty of extracurriculars while dominating the game.
Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead were known for fully enjoying their life and fame. Nicklaus doted on his family and would fly home between rounds to catch his kids’ sporting events.
Nobody can or should obsess about golf full time. So when McIlroy mentions his interests away from the game or lists four highbrow books he’s read recently, is he any different from any other successful golfer?
Minnesotans know him for trading shots and screams with Patrick Reed at Hazeltine National during the Ryder Cup. There is no reason to doubt his competitiveness, but there is reason to question almost every golfer’s career arc. Remember when Woods was destined to catch Nicklaus?
“My routine now consists of meditation, juggling, mind training, you know, doing all the stuff to get yourself in the right place,” McIlroy said.
It’s working. He’s finished in the top 10 in all seven PGA events he’s played this year, and he won the Players Championship last month.
He’s about to play in his 11th Masters. Only eight Masters winners have needed 11 or more attempts to win their first green jacket.
Brad Faxon has helped him with his putting. With a career slam in reach, it would be easy to assume that the juggling, the meditation, the coaching is designed to help him at the Masters.
“It’s to make the most of the next 20 years of my career,” he said. “It’s not just about one week. This is a lifelong journey of trying to improve and learn and master my craft, which is golf.
“That’s what I’ve chosen as what I want to do with my life. That’s a lifelong pursuit. It’s not just one week a year.”
A week from now, McIlroy will either be heading toward a Player of the Year Award, having won his fifth major, or he will be a nearly 30-year-old trying to avoid going a fifth straight season without one.
One week a year can make all the difference in his lifelong pursuit.