AUGUSTA, Ga. – For the briefest of moments, there was the smallest bit of hope. A day that began with little to shoot for other than a top 10 suddenly threatened to turn magical for Rory McIlroy as he made his way around Augusta National, triumphantly holing his final shot from the sand for a birdie on 18, in a final round that might have won him the Masters any other time.
This wasn’t that time because Scottie Scheffler wasn’t about to cough this Masters up. Not to the mullet man, Cameron Smith, and certainly not to a player who was 10 shots back to begin the day, no matter McIlroy’s impressive golfing pedigree.
But his 8-under 64 was the lowest McIlroy has shot in 14 Masters. His second-place finish was his best, too, in the tournament that has confounded him the most and is the only major he hasn’t won.
That it wasn’t enough to win McIlroy the green jacket he probably should have been measured for several times by now almost didn’t matter. There will be more Masters for the 32-year-old, and if he can remember the fearless way he played on this Sunday there should be a green jacket in there for him somewhere along the way, too.
On this Sunday, he had to settle for a little joy as his shot from the bunker dropped in the hole and the roars of the crowd reverberated through the towering Georgia pines.
“That’s as happy as I’ve ever been on a golf course right there,” McIlroy said. “That was incredible, I’ve never heard roars like (that) on the 18th green. It was really cool.”
So cool that playing partner Collin Morikawa responded by knocking his bunker shot in, too, with McIlroy raising his arms in celebration like both had just won the Masters. On a day with little other drama, it seemed like everybody else anywhere near the 18th green was celebrating, too.
It wasn’t a win, but in a way it was. Eleven years after he left the Masters almost in tears after blowing a four-shot lead in the final round, McIlroy finally had a Sunday to remember.
“It’s what you dream about, right?” he said. “You dream about getting yourself in position.”
McIlroy began the day as an afterthought and ended it thinking he might just put a little scare into the unflappable Scheffler. He just might have after making eagle on the 13th hole, but wayward drives on the next two holes led to pars and he hit his putt on the 16th just a little too hard to go in.
But his swing was free and easy, and his targets were precise. With no realistic chance of winning barring a huge collapse by the leader, McIlroy attacked the course like he had nothing to lose, making the first of his six birdies on the first hole and playing bogey free the entire day.
He thought shooting 63 might give him a chance, but no one has shot that low on the final day of the Masters and McIlroy came up one shot short. He thought he might give Scheffler something to think about with the final bunker shot but by then the No. 1 player in the world was already adding back nine birdies of his own.
What it means is difficult to quantify, as are most things in golf. McIlroy felt his game was good coming into the tournament and nothing about losing by three shots changed that thought. There are three majors still to play this year and there’s also the tantalizing prospect of coming back here to do it again – except maybe just a bit better – next year.
It’s not that McIlroy hasn’t had success at the Masters. He’s finished in the top 10 in seven of his 14 appearances but never seemed to be in the mix to win late on the back nine on Sunday.
And, of course, he still hasn’t won a green jacket to add to his trophies from the other three majors.
“I’ve always known that I can do it,” he said. “I’ve played good enough around here, maybe just haven’t strung four rounds together like that, but I’ve always known that I have the game to win at this place. It’s just a matter of having that game for four days in a row and not making big numbers and shooting yourself in the foot, I guess.”
He was once a young phenom whose future seemed unlimited. The majors came early and they came easy until suddenly eight years ago they stopped coming at all.
And in the one tournament he loves the most, the heartache of 2011 never seemed completely out of his mind.
“For a golfer, it’s one of the best places on earth,” he said on the eve of the tournament. “Someone could argue St. Andrews. Someone could argue here. But it’s such a cool place that you can never hate it. Sometimes I hate the results of the tournament, but in terms of the place and the club and the membership, it’s wonderful, and I always have a great time here.”
The results this year were good, just not quite good enough. But it was a day to remember, and a day to build for the future.
“I don’t think I’ve ever walked away from this tournament as happy as I am today,” he 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.”