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The Ballad of Rory and Phil at Augusta National

How old was Phil Mickelson when he won his first major at Augusta (answer after the next paragraph)?

The ride that Phil Mickelson took to his first green jacket, and first major of any kind, in 2004 was one full of doubt and unfulfilled potential. Mickelson was a decorated amateur, he’s even last male golfer to win a tour event as an amateur when he won the Northern Telecom Open in Tucson in 1990. Mickelson was a legend, but through his 20s and early 30s the label “Best Player to Never Win a Major” was basically tattooed across his forehead. Toss in the fact that some kid named Tiger Woods had come along and won a handful of majors by the time he was 25 made it even harder on the lefty. Instead of being the star of the show, Mickelson was an extra is Woods’ feature film. He even got some scenes with the Big Cat in 2001 on Sunday as he locked up the Tiger Slam. There was Phil, a 29 year old, watching Tiger hoard all the trophies that mattered. To Phil’s credit, he shot a 70 on that day, but Tiger’s 68 was too much to overcome.

If you guessed that Phil was 33, you are correct!

On Tuesday, as I watched a 31 year-old Rory McIlroy give his press conference, I was reminded of Phil Mickelson. Both men chasing history at Augusta National. The Masters was just one stop during Phil’s chase; he would have been happy with any major to rid himself of that pesky monkey on his back. The Masters seemed to be one of his best chances given his results. Take a look at Phil’s finishes in the decade leading up to his 2004 triumph:

That is an astounding record. Even if Phil doubted himself, there were plenty of people that could point to his track record every April and remind him that he was destined to win a green jacket. That likely added to the pressure.

Flash forward 17 years and now we have Rory’s chase; he already has four majors to his name, but no green jacket; it’s the only major he needs to catapult him into the most esteemed group in golf: the modern career grand slam winners. Only five men have done it, and Rory would be the second non-American and first European to earn the distinction.

However, Rory has not won a major since 2014 and the pressure just keeps building. If he does win the green jacket this year, it would be the longest gap between the third and fourth leg of the grand slam for any of the five men that have won it. Nicklaus, Player, and Sarazen took 3 years, Hogan took two years, and Tiger took… a month… classic Tiger.

The list of players that fell one major short of the career grand slam is quite impressive, too:

I decided to look at Lee Trevino as a quick test case. He won the PGA Championship, the third leg of his grand slam in 1974; hem was 35 years old. He needed a green jacket to complete his grand slam. At 35, it’s safe to assume he had 10 fair cracks at it and maybe five prime tries from ages 36-40.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the list of “almost” grand slam players is more than twice as long as the list of men that locked it up. It’s incredibly hard to do, but the fact that Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead and Tom Watson couldn’t manage one good week at a particular major championship might say more about the building pressure over time than about their talent. Imagine spending your entire year thinking about four days and living in that cycle over and over again. In the case of the Masters, the players are going back to the same place every year. In the back of each of their minds, the career grand slam was sitting there humming away on the hamster wheel.

In Rory’s case, the Masters isn’t running on a hamster wheel anymore, it has to feel more like it’s tucked away in a monster truck tire flying down the 15th fairway towards the water at a dizzying speed. Since his dominant win at Kiawah in 2014, Rory has had six cracks at the career grand slam. He found himself in the final group in 2018 with Patrick Reed, a pairing that left many hoping for a replay of Hazeltine’s Ryder Cup duel. Instead, Rory blew his opening tee shot so far right the ball exited the right edge of my television screen.

The irony of McIlroy’s struggles at Augusta is that they could have been squelched before they even began. In 2011, he led by four shots after 54 holes. A 37 on the first nine left him looking a bit unnerved. He still held the lead on the tenth tee, but he proceeded to hit a drive up into the left trees that might have traveled 50 yards. He headed into the woods and maybe left a part of himself up there roaming around the cabins like a ghost of golfing past that wanders the left side of the tenth fairway waiting to be freed.

Every April the ghost returns to Rory’s body for one round, a round that Shane Bacon on Golf Today called “That Round.” They seem to cut Rory off at the knees at Augusta; there’s always one round in the mid-70s that leaves him out of contention, but free enough to play great golf and sneak into the top ten.

This week will be Rory’s seventh try at the grand slam and thirteenth Masters appearance. He’s flying a bit under the radar because his golf has been poor recently; he’s admitted to chasing distance and speed, which is like Steven Hawking chasing IQ points or Bill Gates chasing $20 dollars down the street. He also brought in Pete Cowan to help with his swing and wedge play.

I wrote a long time ago, probably back when he was winning majors, that Rory felt like the anti-Tiger. Rory’s refreshing honesty provides us all a bit more insight than Tiger did when he was at his peak. Rory has said in the past that winning a green jacket would mean “everything” to him. He’s talked about wanting to win the career grand slam and what it would mean to him and his place in the game’s history.

Tiger only had to think about the career grand slam for a month.

Even before Rory won the PGA Championship in 2014, many golf fans wanted to pass Tiger’s torch to him and let him run for the next 12-15 years. He was 24 years old and absolutely dominant. It’s shocking to think that since lifting the Wannamaker trophy on the shores of Kiawah that Tiger has won more majors than Rory.

Again, Tiger’s shadow has stretched 20+ years over countless golfers. It started with Phil Mickelson trying to just win one freaking major. He tried and tried while watching Tiger bag them up like apples in the fall. Then as Rory ascended, Tiger was descending and everyone thought Rory would step into his shoes. Instead a few guys have grabbed the torch over the last seven years - Spieth and Koepka most notably.

There’s more connecting Rory and Phil than ever connected Rory and Tiger. Phil and Rory are honest, open, and vulnerable when they speak with the media. When they answer questions it appears they have thought about them beforehand and want to give a thoughtful answer. Whereas Tiger always felt rehearsed and kept everyone outside the wall. Phil famously missed a few chances at the career grand slam, particularly at Winged Foot in 2006 when he was on the cusp on winning three straight majors and was the best player in the world. In 2006 he still didn’t have his Open Championship win, but that afternoon at Winged Foot and those last two tee shots must creep into his thoughts every now and then.

This week, Rory might not win the Masters, tightening the screws of pressure even more. Like Phil, he’s had his chances at Augusta in his 20s, but we all have to remember that it took Phil until he was 33 to claim his first major and shed the “Best Player to Never Win a Major” title. Alan Shipnuck wrote in his SI gamer following that raucous 2011 Masters, “At least Woods already has four green jackets. McIlroy's quest to get that elusive first one will only get harder with all the scar tissue he accrued during his final-round 80. ‘It was a character-building day, put it that way,’ he said.”

Both Phil and Rory had character building experiences at The Masters, where as Tiger showed up and won his first as a pro. Shipnuck’s quote could have been written after the 2003 Masters about Phil, and the only thing that would need to be changed is Tiger’s green jacket count.

Rory is too young, has too much time remaining, and is too talented to not win a green jacket. Who knows, maybe it takes him as long as Sergio and wins one at age 38 and breaks the record for most Masters appearances before winning (Sergio took 19 tries…). Rory’s always one for a little bit of drama, the guy took a police escort to the Ryder Cup after all.

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