By Norm Elrod
(CBS Miami/CBS Local) — Can Rory McIlroy finally complete the career grand slam? Sure. Will he this week at the Masters in Augusta? We’ll know Sunday, but his chances are promising. All he has to do is overcome the world’s best golfers and himself. Should be no problem, right?
The career grand slam — winning the Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open and Open Championship — is a supreme accomplishment. Only five golfers have managed the feat, and, no surprise, the list includes some of the game’s greats. Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen have all done it; Woods could contend again this year. McIlroy, who has yet to turn 30 years old, will once more look to join these legends.
At 22, the young golfer from Northern Ireland won the 2011 U.S. Open. McIlroy won the event at Congressional Country Club in the Washington, DC suburbs by a comfortable eight strokes, beating out a field sprinkled with some of the top players McIlroy will face this week. Those include Adam Scott, Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson; Woods pulled out of the event with a knee injury.
McIlroy would go to capture three more majors by the age of 25 — the PGA Championship (2012, 2014) and the Open Championship (2014) — not to mention numerous other tournament titles on the PGA and European Tours. But the Masters has eluded him during his career to date.
His best chance at a Masters title actually preceded his 2011 U.S. Open title, and the stinging loss may have actually sparked it. McIlroy was tied for lead at 7-under after the first day, two strokes ahead at 10-under after the second day, and four strokes up at 12-under after the third day. The green jacket was his to lose, and that’s what he did. His Sunday performance was among the worst of anyone leading going into the fourth round. Turning in an 80 on the final day, McIlroy finished tied for 15th with a disappointing 4-under for the tournament.
As he would recall years later, “that’s probably the only time I’ve cried over golf.” But as future history has proved, he would also learn from the experience, even if the lessons haven’t yet yielded fruit at Augusta.
McIlroy debuted at Augusta in 2009 as a teenager, tying for 20th after barely making the cut. He’s improved his standing with experience, turning in multiple top-10 performances in the decade since. In the years he’s been attempting to complete the career grand slam, McIlroy has never finished outside of the top 10. His best finish was fourth place in 2015, and his best score was 276 for the four rounds that same year.
The odds have McIlroy favored going into this year’s Masters. At 8/1, the world’s third-ranked player is just ahead of Dustin Johnson (10/1), Justin Rose (12/1) and Tiger Woods (12/1). And his season so far certainly supports that standing. McIlroy has finished in the top 10 in all of his events this calendar year, including a win last month at The Players, edging out Jim Furyk in another successful run on TPC Sawgrass. He tied for ninth at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies in his most recent appearance.
Many experts like his chances as well. As CBS Sports on-course reporter Dottie Pepper put it, “he’s gotten himself in position to do it before. He comes in as one of the hottest players in the game. It was quite the clinic he put on at the Players.” Pepper, winner of 17 LPGA Tour events herself, has been there before. “You best deal with pressure if you know exactly where it is and you just deal with it head on. And I think he’s doing that.”
McIlroy’s recent comments suggest he’s come to terms with his situation. Describing his inner monologue, he said “I want to win it. And I’d love to win it. But if I don’t, I’m OK.”
CBS Sports lead analyst Nick Faldo, who has three green jackets, marveled at what today’s golfers face. “The hardest thing now is the scrutiny 24-7. And I know Rory commented on that, and how he was actually not reading any papers, not listening to any television. That can wind you up; everybody has an opinion.”
As Faldo stressed, “You have to be able to relax and let yourself go, and then you can perform.”
McIlroy certainly seems poised to contend for his first Masters title and complete his career grand slam. And if he does, he’ll be just the third golfer under 30 to make that happen. Another of them, Tiger Woods, who completed his career grand slam at age 24, will be out there with him at Augusta.
Let’s take a quick look at McIlroy’s main competition going into the event.
Johnson has never won the Masters, though he’s finished in the top 10 in his last three PGA Tour appearances. The second-ranked golfer in the world is a threat in any tournament he plays and continues to prove it each time out. Johnson has finished in the top 10 in all but one of his six tournaments this year. That includes a win at the WGC-Mexico Championship in February.
Rose returned to the top spot in the World Golf Rankings to start the year, but he’s never put on the green jacket. He came closest two years ago, losing to Sergio Garcia in a playoff. In his 13 appearances at August, Rose has never missed a cut. He is enjoying strong season so far, with a win at the Farmers Insurance Open and an eighth-place finish at the Players.
Woods has been here before, but let’s recap. The big cat has four Masters titles, among his many majors, though his last win came back in 2005. Tying for 32nd last year, he hasn’t really contended at Augusta since 2013. Currently ranked 12th in the world, Woods is officially back in the hunt. His best 2019 finish so far is a T5 at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, but it’s impossible to count out a four-time Masters winner who’s back on top of his game.
Fowler has 34 straight major appearances without a win. But he came closest last year at Augusta, when he finished one stroke behind winner Patrick Reed. Fowler showed he has what it takes to put on the green jacket. But an inconsistent 2019, featuring a win at the Waste Management Phoenix Open that followed a 66th place finish at the Farmers Insurance Open, leaves some cause for concern.