2024 Masters: Good won’t be good enough for Rory McIlroy to beat Scottie Scheffler this week

2024 Masters: Good won’t be good enough for Rory McIlroy to beat Scottie Scheffler this week
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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rory McIlroy was in no mood to celebrate.

What could have been an opening round in the 60s had ultimately turned into a 1-under 71 Thursday at the Masters. In the last hour alone there was a failed up-and-down chance on the par-5 15th, a 6-foot birdie miss up the hill on 16, a bogey from the trees on 17.

Still, he was reminded: This was his best start at Augusta National since 2018.

“Is it?” McIlroy said with a bewildered look.

It was.

Over his past five Masters appearances, McIlroy had failed to break par in the opening round and averaged 73.8. Sometimes, he was too tight to start. Others, he was too loose. At times, he has maxed out his preparation for the tournament he covets most. Then, like this year, he has tried to treat the Masters like any other event, flying in Tuesday, doing some media, practicing for a total of 18 holes. Whatever the year, whatever the strategy, his starts in the Masters have been consistently inconsistent.

But this year was a breakthrough of sorts – an under-par start.


“That’s sort of embarrassing if it is,” McIlroy said sheepishly, “but that’s a good thing. Yeah, I guess. I kept it together. I stuck to my game plan. Getting in in red numbers was decent.”

Of course, “decent” won’t be good enough to win this Masters. Not when 31 others were also under par when play was suspended. Not when he’s still six shots off Bryson DeChambeau’s lead. And not when his fellow playing competitor on Thursday, world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, is playing at such a consistently excellent level that his title contention has begun to feel inevitable.

When the draw was announced earlier this week, placing him in the super-group with Scheffler and another tournament favorite, Xander Schauffele, McIlroy was excited about the possibilities. Sure, he wanted to keep tabs on the best player in the world. And he was keen to see how Scheffler would navigate himself around the course, particularly in 35-mph wind gusts. But there also wouldn’t be any easing into this major; he knew he’d have to be locked in from the opening tee shot.

“In that way,” McIlroy said of the grouping, “it’s a good thing.”

And on Thursday, he was treated to the full Scheffler experience – to the kind of elite ball-striking we haven’t seen since Tiger Woods’ prime, to the trusting partnership between player and caddie that led to so many pin-high approaches in whipping winds, to the tidiness on and around the greens that kept any blemishes off his card.

It added up to Scheffler’s 6-under 66 – his lowest score in 17 rounds at the Masters, and first bogey-free round.

“He’s just so efficient,” McIlroy said. “If you look at Scottie compared to the rest of the field, the amount of bogey-free rounds he plays and he shoots is phenomenal. And that’s the secret to winning major championships and winning big-time golf tournaments is more limiting the mistakes rather than making a ton of birdies.”

McIlroy’s analysis was spot-on: This was Scheffler’s ninth bogey-free round of the year, second-most on the PGA Tour this season.

Thursday’s opener wasn’t perfect, nor was it remarkable in any distinguishable way: Scheffler missed a short birdie try on No. 4 and a 10-foot eagle attempt on 15. He holed a bunker shot on 12 when his tee shot sailed long into the bunker. He was “extremely fortunate” that his ball didn’t find the creek on 13 when he flinched at the top of his backswing after hearing another player make contact nearby.

But never was he in serious danger of dropping a shot, or two.

He was calculating, patient, disciplined.

“It doesn’t look like it’s 6 under par,” McIlroy said, “and then at the end of the day, it’s 6 under par.”

“Limiting your mistakes, obviously it’s a lot easier said than done,” Scheffler said later, after being informed of McIlroy’s post-round praise. “But it’s important to keep that momentum of the round going. And I felt like today, when I was in some challenging spots on some tough holes, I did a good job of pitching it up there nice and close. Overall, it was a pretty solid day.”

And it’s what makes the prospect of challenging him over the next few days so daunting. He’s so solid, so consistent, so immune to boneheaded mental mistakes that it forces his competitors to press. McIlroy had a “decent” start but now, somehow, he needs to cut into a six-shot deficit over the next three days. It pushes him into an uncomfortable spot, closer and closer to mistake-free golf.

Having faced off against him for more than a decade, dating to their junior days in Texas, Will Zalatoris had a unique perspective on Scheffler’s rise to the unquestioned No. 1 in the world.

“Randy Smith, his coach, always told him: You don’t want to be the best 15-year-old. You want to be the best 25-year-old. He’s had that attitude his entire career,” Zalatoris said. “It’s very motivating. When he does something incredibly special like he’s done over the past two to three years, it makes me want to work even harder.”

For the rest of the field trying to match Scheffler, these next 54 holes will be hard enough.

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