AUGUSTA, Ga. — As he sat in Augusta National’s elaborate interview room Sunday evening, Rory McIlroy was wearing green.
It just wasn’t quite the right shade.
McIlroy didn’t win the 86th Masters. He didn’t complete the career grand slam. Heck, at no point these past four days did he factor. But what he did do was rip off the guardrails, go for broke and put together his best 18 holes – and overall finish – around this sacred layout.
McIlroy’s 8-under 64, capped by a holed bunker shot for birdie, was a shot better than the two 65s he’s posted, in 2011 and 2018, and it earned him sole possession of second place, three shots behind champion Scottie Scheffler.
“You go out there today and you give it a go, and if it doesn’t quite work out, it doesn’t really matter,” McIlroy said. “But if it does work out, you can have a day like this and have some fun.”
It wasn’t just fun. It was electric. And McIlroy had the place buzzing early and often.
Especially at the end, when the crowd roared louder than it had all week – and that was with McIlroy locking up bridesmaid status, not a green jacket. (Imagine had that bunker shot been to win…)
“What you just saw on the last hole with me and Rory, that was the coolest thing in the world,” said Collin Morikawa, who followed McIlroy’s hole-out from the right greenside bunker at No. 18 with one of his own. With Morikawa shooting 67 to finish solo fifth, the pair combined for a best-ball 61.
McIlroy needed that on his own ball to force a playoff.
Admittedly, McIlroy “played for pars” for much of the early part of this tournament. Though, as he explained, that was part of his strategy, to just hang around until he got his moment to attack. Sure, 73-73-71 left him too far back to begin Sunday – 10 shots – but McIlroy wasn’t kicking himself as he offered reflection while Scheffler was simultaneously wrapping up his first major title.
“Scottie just had such a lead,” McIlroy said. “It wasn’t just me that struggled first two days. It was basically every other person in the field apart from Scottie.”
By the time McIlroy teed of Sunday afternoon, his only chance to catch the red-hot Scheffler, whose heater – three wins in six starts entering the Masters – had bled into this week, was to turn the aggressiveness dial all the way up.
So, he fired at the flag at No. 1, and made birdie.
He pounded a 376-yard drive on a gutsy far-left line at No. 2. (OK, so he came away with a disappointing by there.)
He then sent his drive up just right of the green at No. 3 to set up an easy birdie.
Suddenly, it was clear: McIlroy was feeling himself, and his golf swing, and a low round and Sunday charge was brewing.
As Golf Twitter puts it, Rory was comin’.
“I’ve been in that position, and I’ve had the lead on the back nine here and haven’t been able to get it done,” McIlroy said. “I just wanted to try and put a little bit of pressure on [Scottie]and I feel like I did that.”
McIlroy’s best shot of the day came from the left rough at No. 7, where he hit a low stinger that ran through the small opening between the two front greenside bunkers before settling on the first cut, some 30 feet behind the pin.
“Ridiculous,” Morikawa said. “Out of the trees, through the little gap. [My caddie] not a word [Jakovac] said he walked over there on that line and really didn’t even see a gap running it up.”
But there was, and McIlroy found it.
After reuniting with longtime instructor Michael Bannon last fall, McIlroy’s game had been trending, even if his results didn’t show it – just two top-10s and a missed cut last week in San Antonio. He had also changed golf balls after the first round of the Valero, going back to one he had used a few years ago.
It all added up on Sunday.
“I feel good with where my golf swing is, and I’m not overanalyzing it and not looking at the video too much, and it feels pretty good,” McIlroy said. “The ball is basically doing what I want it to do more times than not. That’s a good thing.”
Morikawa also noticed McIlroy’s walk – not too fast, not too slow.
“When you look at someone’s walk, you can kind of see their demeanor and how they kind of move through things,” Morikawa said. “From that first tee shot, I think both of us, especially him, he was moving at a nice pace. He was moving at a comfortable pace.”
McIlroy birdied the par-5 eighth to turn in 4-under 32, and he kickstarted his second nine with a chip-in birdie at par-4 10th. The excitement was building at that point, though McIlroy was still seven off the lead.
He next strung together a clutch up-and-down par at No. 11, rolling in a 7-footer. And a few holes later, after launching a long-iron 201 yards to 10 feet for an eagle at No. 13, he hit a beautiful pitch at No. 14 that rode the slope and set up a stress-free par save.
“Those are the things that are really pleasing,” McIlroy said. “And they are not the things that are going to get the highlights or the applause, but it’s those little things that keep the round going. That’s what I was most proud of today.”
In the end, McIlroy never really threatened Scheffler. A firm bounce on McIlroy’s third into the par-5 15th resulted in another bummer of a par, and he hit his 18-foot birdie putt at the par-3 16th too firm.
The only reason McIlroy finished as close as he did was because Scheffler four-putted his closing hole, which happened right as McIlroy was wrapping up his presser; a reporter alerted him of it.
“Oh, no,” McIlroy responded.
He already knew it didn’t matter.
He also already knew he has the game to win a green jacket someday.
He hasn’t put it all together it yet, but he knows that ability is inside of him. Sunday proved it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever walked away from this tournament as happy as I am today,” McIlroy said. “I’ve played a really good round of golf, and it’s my best ever finish at Augusta. It’s not quite enough, but I’ll certainly look back on this day with very fond memories. And as I said at the start, it gives me confidence going forward not only into the next Masters next year but to the rest of the season as well.”
The fun, it seems, may be just beginning.