AUGUSTA, Ga. — Before we get to Rory McIlroy, I have a pop culture confession to make. I’ve never seen “Game of Thrones.” I know the first episode of the series’ final season comes out this Sunday, though, and I’m aware of that fact because HBO recently sent GoT fans on a worldwide scavenger hunt for six (and it had to be six for our purposes) Iron Thrones.
To stoke excitement and anticipation, HBO challenged its fans worldwide to an epic scavenger hunt. The network sent fans in search of six Iron Throne replicas – you know, the ultimate symbol of power in the fictional kingdom of Westeros.
Why did it have to be six? Well, HBO’s plans for Sunday dovetail with the No. 1 storyline at this year’s Masters (live on CBS) — Rory McIlroy and his quest for the career grand slam. It’s pretty much perfect.
Five men have completed the feat of winning all four majors in a career. A sixth throne lays dormant. There are a handful of current golfers who, like those GoT fan contestants, are hoping to claim it. None of them have even caught a true glimpse though, and that leads us right to McIlroy.
The 29-year-old Ulsterman is the crown prince of golf’s post-Tiger Woods era. He is the one with The Gift, the one to whom all the spoils have been bequeathed. But there is a chasm between future and current royalty, and that chasm for McIlroy is 72 holes long and named after a 18 varieties of flowers. If he’s to attain true golf nobility — if he’s to become the greatest non-American golfer in history — he knows he has to wear green, at least once, on a Sunday in April.
McIlroy claims he doesn’t need it — and I believe him. It certainly doesn’t need him, after all. But what a royal union it would be for McIlroy to take the slam at Augusta National. There is a throne, many presume, with his name on it somewhere out there among the pines. The only question that remains is the same one we’ve been asking for the last four years: Will he ever claim it?
Masters profile: Rory McIlroy
Masters played: 10 | Cuts made: 9 | Top 10 finishes: 5
Scoring average: 71.61
Best finish: 4th in 2015
2019 OWGR: No. 3 | 2019 strokes gained: No. 1
History: It’s been a sometimes dark walk for McIlroy around a place he clearly reveres. There was the infamous 2011 meltdown, but he also faltered in a variety of ways in 2016 and 2018. The former with Jordan Spieth as his third round partner; the latter with eventual champion Patrick Reed at his side in the final pairing of the event. McIlroy said on Tuesday that, at different times in various rounds at the Masters, both his swing and his mental game have let him down. At the same time, he has five consecutive top-10 finishes here and has flirted with history often on these grounds.
Current form: By pretty much any available metric, McIlroy is the best player on the planet. He leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained overall. He won the Players Championship and has seven top 10s in seven tries to start 2019. He’s in close to perfect form.
Best … and worst: It’s strange to me that McIlroy’s best finish here was in 2015 when Spieth beat him by six even after McIlroy fired 68-66 on the weekend. It certainly wasn’t his best chance to win — that would be 2011 or 2018. I would even argue 2016, when he shot 77 in Round 3 and played his way out of a late Sunday tee time, was a better opportunity to take home his first victory here.
Stats matter: McIlroy is 12th on the PGA Tour in approach shots, first in driving and first from tee to green. His numbers at Augusta of late have been just as impressive (if not more so), according to 15th Club.
No player has been better, tee-to-green, over the last four years than Rory McIlroy. Rory has gained 2.23 strokes per round on the field tee-to-green. The next four names on that statistical leaderboard are Rose (1.97), Casey (1.76), Hideki Matsuyama (1.75) and Dustin Johnson (1.73).
That’s not guaranteed to lead to a green jacket — just ask Ernie Els and Greg Norman how their experiences as great ball-strikers here went — but it certainly lends credibility to McIlroy as the betting favorite and should offer him multiple more chances at winning this golf tournament.
Why he’ll win: Because it’s destiny. Kings are meant to claim thrones, and McIlroy has for a decade now been dubbed the next great one. This isn’t why he’ll win of course, but that’s the fun narrative. The reason why he’ll win is because he’s the best driver of the golf ball of all time, and if he sinks a higher-than-average portion of putts, it’s easier for him to score than it is for most people in the field to score. It sounds so easy, even if it isn’t. Also, he seems to be in a pretty great place mentally, where he’s less focused on results and more focused one what he’s putting into the process.
“So, it’s not as if I’m coming here not to try and win the golf tournament, but I know if I have the right attitude and I have my goals that I want to achieve this year, the by‑product could be winning this golf tournament,” said McIlroy. That might not be a popular way to preview this event,.
Why he won’t win: Because even the greatest players have a 90 percent chance of not winning. Because he might not putt well. Because even if he does, D.J. might lap him like he did in Mexico. There are a lot of things that can go “wrong.” I continue to wonder if there aren’t a few lingering demons here, too. That could be poppycock, but if he stands on the 10th tee with a three-stroke lead on Sunday at 4 p.m., there is going to be a lot for him (and all of us) to think about.
Prediction: McIlroy will grab his sixth straight top 10 at Augusta National and eighth to start the season but fall in the end to Justin Thomas, who will grab his first green jacket.