Clayton: Augusta messes with all minds

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy during Sunday at Augusta.

Augusta National is the realiser of great and long-held dreams and increasingly more so as the brilliance of the marketing of The Masters has many believing it’s the most important championship in the world. One assumes Bobby Jones wouldn’t approve of anyone thinking it more important than either of the two Opens and it’s surely not?

Equally, Augusta has been the destroyer of dreams, it’s history littered with dashed hopes of men seemingly with perfect games for the course. Until Adam Scott in 2013, it had haunted the dreams of a whole country as Australians year after year, from Jim Ferrier in 1950 onwards, tried without success to win over its steep, red, clay hills. That we had not been successful on the course most replicating the demands of Royal Melbourne made the failure of multiple Australians to win doubly perplexing.

Tom Weiskopf, he of the most elegant and powerful swing of his generation, was second four times at Augusta. Johnny Miller, the greatest iron player of his time, finished runner-up three times including in 1981 when another blond star announced his presence. Greg Norman’s fourth place finish behind Miller, Jack Nicklaus and the champion Tom Watson foreshadowed the prospect of multiple wins. Like Weiskopf, Norman had all the requisite power and flair to answer the questions of MacKenzie and Jones.

How could Larry Mize possibly beat Seve Ballesteros and Norman on the same day?

After Norman came Ernie Els, a player as stylish as Weiskopf. Augusta gave up nothing to his extravagant talents either, even though everyone assumed he was a certainty to win at some point.  How could he not when we consider the virtues of his game and compare them with Zach Johnson and Trevor Immelman? Weiskopf would be entitled to think the same of George Archer, the 1969 champion who beat him by a single shot.

Of course the great thing about golf is Mize could beat the two best players on the planet or Jack Fleck could beat Ben Hogan at Olympic in 1955 and Francis Ouimet could take down Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, the might of the empire, in the 1913 US Open.

It’s almost inconceivable that Els, Miller, Weiskopf and Norman didn’t win once between them at Augusta. Can you imagine how many great shots they must have hit in their time there only to be beaten by fate, a bad bounce, a bad choice or a man having an equally good week but scoring a shot lower?

Which all points us to Rory McIlroy.

Almost universally the commentators thought him the most likely winner this year despite being three shots behind Patrick Reed on Saturday night.

Perhaps they were just hoping someone, anyone, would beat Reed who must be the champion at which more antipathy has been directed than any other?

McIlroy, like the other star-crossed men of Augusta, looks at some point to be a sure winner. He has one of the best swings of his generation. He hits great shots and drives the ball beautifully. He has swagger and presence and no one doubts his ability to win big championships. Of all his contemporaries, he has the most, although Jordan Spieth was an oddly protruding branch of a badly placed pine tree not far off the 18th tee from his fourth major.

McIlroy was playing to complete his career grand slam. Only five before him have done it, six if you include Bobby Jones who arguably won the hardest of them all when he won all four of the 1930 majors in the space of a northern summer.

It’s a not insignificant burden and while McIlroy tried to deflect the pressure on to Reed in a Saturday night television interview, a wildly crooked drive off the first tee, a missed short putt for an eagle on the second and a critically under-hit pitch into the third showed no one is immune from the pressure.

Even Spieth, who started off with no pressure given he was a full nine shots behind on Sunday morning, just failed at the final hurdle with the marginal drive and a miss from six feet for a par. In the end he lost by two, but like Norman before him in 1986 and 1989 it was a costly five.

Spieth, though, has his green coat. McIlroy, one assumes, will eventually have his. After all, even Sergio Garcia finally got one, albeit almost two decades after his brilliant run at Tiger Woods as a 20-year-old in the 1999 US PGA Championship. If you’d bet it’d have taken Sergio a year for every hole there is on a course to win a major when he walked off the final green that day at Medinah, they would have thought you crazy.

The quirks and challenges of Augusta’s second nine have messed with many a strong mind. Even Jack Nicklaus lost a few he might have won and he showed losses are inevitable. The winning, however, is not and one ongoing fascination will be to see if McIlroy can break the cursed luck of Weiskopf, Norman, Els and Miller.