Genius is white hot. Fleeting, too. It explodes, and then is gone. Picasso was a genius but not for all of his 79 years as an artist. Sometimes he just painted. Joseph Heller was once told he had done nothing as great as his first novel, Catch 22. ‘Who has?’ he replied.
It is no different in sport. The short list of golf’s Grand Slam winners have one trait in common: brevity. Setting aside Gene Sarazen, whose individual slam took 13 years because the Masters did not exist for 11 of them, the rest got it done in preciously short time. Tiger Woods from 1997 to 2000, Jack Nicklaus between 1962 and 1966, Gary Player 1959 to 1965, Ben Hogan 1946 to 1953.
Rory McIlroy is beyond the outer cusp of this timespan already. He ran up his first three majors between 2011 and 2014 — and now he is six years and counting, waiting for that elusive Masters to complete the quartet. Even were he to win in Augusta this week it would be the longest completion of a Slam in the modern era: nine years.
Rory McIlroy is looking to complete the slam with a victory in the Masters in Augusta this week
He won his first three majors between 2011 and 2014 but has been waiting to complete the set
Perhaps that was why McIlroy greeted Phil Mickelson’s prediction that he would eventually run out of wardrobe space for all his Green Jackets with little more than politeness. Sometimes it never is your day or your year.
The big one did not happen for Colin Montgomerie, or Maurico Pochettino at Tottenham. Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson fell one short of career Slams. When he talks, McIlroy veers between the bullish and philosophical. At 25, he had won four majors. That may yet prove his competitive peak.
It happens. Wayne Rooney, for all his qualities, never captured the imagination at a tournament as he did aged 18 at the 2004 European Championship. By then, Michael Owen was already his support act, having seemed unstoppable at the 1998 World Cup, also in his teenage years. This is not about mere promise. Sports are littered with players who looked to have enormous potential.
The big one did not happen for Colin Montgomerie, and sometimes it never is your day or year
Yet greatness, too, is ephemeral. The morning after McIlroy won his first major, the 2011 US Open, at Congressional Country Club by eight shots, Johnny Miller was talking on the radio. McIlroy had finished 16-under par, and Miller spoke as if he had witnessed a player who would dominate his sport as Woods had done.
It never quite happened. Woods won eight majors in five years, and 14 across 11. McIlroy won four in three years, and then stopped. And he is not alone.
In Britain, we are obsessed with McIlroy’s battle for his personal Slam, or just a fifth major, but in America equivalent mystery surrounds Jordan Spieth. He racked up three majors between 2015 and 2017 — he has a Masters but is a USPGA Championship short of his Slam — but is currently ranked 80th in the world. Maybe he will get his game back, maybe we have already seen his best.
David Duval did not win a single PGA tournament after his 2001 victory at The Open, which was supposed to be his breakthrough.
McIlroy does a fine job handling the expectation in his public comments, but deliberately snapping a club in two out of frustration during the first round of the Zozo Championship last month was more of an insight into his internal pressures. He has not finished in the top five in any of the last 12 tournaments going into the Masters, his poorest run coming to Augusta in 11 visits.
Supporters instead have to look to unquantifiable omens. He is a new father, which is believed to carry mystic power, and will benefit from the old chestnut of ‘travelling beneath the radar’ with Bryson DeChambeau dominating the news narrative.
Yet if McIlroy was in good nick, DeChambeau’s strategy would not be the only topic in town, or at least this would be depicted as a battle between the two, more than one man’s 48-inch driver shaft versus the course.
McIlroy came to Augusta at the end of October and played in a four-ball against his father Gerry and an Augusta member, Manhattan investment banker Jimmy Dunne. It hardly bodes well that McIlroy Jnr’s pair lost, even though he cheerfully insists that defeat occurred on the first tee, giving up too many shots.
Similarly to McIlroy, in America they wonder if they’ve already seen the best of Jordan Speith
If McIlroy was in good nick, Bryson DeChambeau’s strategy would not be the only topic in town
‘I always think back to when we used to play at Holywood, me and my dad,’ said McIlroy, wistfully. ‘To think we’d be walking up the 18th together at Augusta 20 years later. I’ve got goosebumps just talking about it.’
There are times when one wonders if that is still the golf McIlroy likes best of all, back home in Northern Ireland when every shot wasn’t a catalyst for analysis and meaning; when even the most helpful commentary — ‘Now is the time for McIlroy to win Masters, say pundits’ read one headline — did not arrive with the potential for disappointment.
‘I feel as in control as I have been for a while,’ said McIlroy. ‘It’s in there, it’s just a question of getting it out, and playing with freedom. It’s almost a nice thing to not have the Masters on your mind 24/7 these days.
‘If I let something consume me then I start overthinking it. But you can’t be afraid of failing. I have failed a hell of a lot more than I’ve succeeded. That’s where I got my persistence and grit from. I learned a lot from failure. Doggedness, stubbornness, perseverance, that’s the common denominator. It’s not something you’re born with, it’s something you cultivate. Courage.’
Given his talent, it is a brave man that bets against a McIlroy Slam someday. But his time will come? Sadly, for Phil and all romantics, it is a little more complicated than that.
Given his talent, you’d fancy McIlroy to win the slam someday but sadly, it is no gimme