Rory McIlroy, and the chase for that elusive green jacket

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Rory McIlroy rests his left hand atop the soiled handle of a swing-scarred 7-iron. Leaning into the weight of his compact frame, he is smiling, more from acknowledgment than amusement.

The sky above him is steely, threatening the inevitable daily South Florida shower. The breeze is slight but determined, rippling the sea of flags across the PGA National property. Behind him, the driving range rings with the pings of a dozen lunch-break heroes emptying buckets full of fluorescent yellow balls.

McIlroy is considerate of questions posed to him. He doesn't respond impulsively to appease himself or others. He cares about his words, certainly these words, issued in response to a question every elite golfer dreams to answer -- because as the question hangs in the air, so does a certain brand of validation.

After a brief reflective pause, McIlroy reveals whether his closet could possibly feel full without a green sport coat, pantone 342 on the color wheel, woven of thread from Dublin, Georgia -- the Masters Tournament green jacket.

"I'd love to give you an answer and say my life is already fulfilled, with everything that's happened, and everything that's going to happen in the future, by starting a family and all that," McIlroy says. "But if I didn't have a green jacket, there'd be a tiny piece that would just be missing. It really would be.

"And yeah, I'd be lying if I said, as a person ... yeah. I wouldn't be fulfilled if I didn't get it."

McIlroy is genuinely aware that his closet is bountiful. He is a major champion, PGA Tour icon and global celebrity. The emergent face of Nike Golf, he recently signed a 10-year extension with the shoemaker.

Asked why Nike was right for him, he's very blunt.

"Whether it was [Roger] Federer, Michael Jordan or the soccer players I followed, they all wore Nike," he says. "I always associated Nike with the best, with greatness."

He feels wealthy in every sense of the word. He is engaged to Erica Stoll, and he says she understands him and his trade and the myriad nuances of both, and supports his dreams therein. There are many.

His parents are healthy. They are his best friends. He has a core group of trusted allies (when asked, he counts roughly 10 people) who know when to challenge him, when to embrace him and when to leave him to reflection.

Golf is a solitary existence. You're well-trained, but the island that is a golfer's existence can overwhelm the skill sometimes. And fame adds a complex layer. With it, that mental island and its barren patches are visible from every angle. And the lighthouse shines upon it always.

That's why, for McIlroy, the circle of authenticity is vital. It provides checks and balances, with genuine care for his well-being.

He says those who truly know him know a man who is sometimes impatient and constantly competitive, who is fun-loving and generous. One of those most-trusted allies, agent Sean O'Flaherty, shared two telling examples of the McIlroy ethos: Tip well, always, and send thank-you notes.

The thank-you notes were a lesson from Arnold Palmer. Within McIlroy's office is a framed note from Palmer, dated Sept. 6, 2016, congratulating McIlroy on winning the Deutsche Bank Championship and saying that he looked forward to seeing McIlroy again soon. Palmer died Sept. 25.

The tipping philosophy comes, in part, from being the son of Jerry and Rosie McIlroy, who Rory says worked thankless jobs for tireless hours in the effort to fund a son's dream. Rosie worked graveyard shifts at a factory. Jerry worked three jobs, some for tips. Rory is quick to note: Golf was his dream, not his parents'.

"They basically never saw each other," he explains. "We didn't take a family holiday for over a decade. I'm an only child, so I was always so close with my parents growing up. They are like best friends. I can tell them anything, lean on them, ask them for advice.

"If I didn't have a green jacket, there'd be a tiny piece that would just be missing. It really would be And yeah, I'd be lying if I said, as a person ... Yeah. I wouldn't be fulfilled if I didn't get it." Rory McIlroy

"The pride that they feel when I do well, I can feel that and I can sense that. When you're 10 or 11 or 12 years old, you don't realize the sacrifices that they're making for you. But once you get older, and you know a bit more about the world, you realize how much sacrifice they made for you."

Asked what it feels like to see that pride in his father's eyes as they approach each other for a victorious embrace, McIlroy peers off in the distance and shakes his head.

"Nothing feels better than that," he says, rubbing his arms with the opposite hands. "I'm getting goose bumps just thinking about it."

It's against his nature, but yelling feels pretty good sometimes, too.

During the final round of the Ryder Cup in Minnesota in September, McIlroy engaged in an epic match with American Patrick Reed. It was spirited. The crowd was loud and rowdy, and McIlroy immersed himself in the energy, sometimes yelling, sometimes gesturing. It was beautiful.

"The Ryder Cup brings out emotions in me I didn't think I had," he says. "I didn't think I'd act like that. I watch it back now and I'm like, 'Whew -- I don't think I could get any more fired up than that.'

"It's definitely different for a golf event -- it's the first event I felt like the away team. I'd never want to feel intimidated by the opposing crowd, but you're up against it. You're not just playing your opponent. You're playing the 50,000 people yelling at you, as well. As a golfer, you don't get that very often. I got into it. I got into it on the golf course. I got into it with fans."

It was a lesson in emotion management. His best such lesson was the 2011 Masters. Just 21 years old, he began Championship Sunday with a four-stroke lead at 12-under par. With nine holes to play, he was 11-under, his lead down to one stroke. His game fell apart on the back nine, and so did his Masters dream.

With disappointment came hurt. But with time, the hurt gave way to perspective.

"As a golfer and as a person, if you really want something, sometimes being selfish is OK," McIlroy says. "Sometimes taking care of yourself, sometimes putting yourself first is OK, especially if you want to achieve your goals and accomplish things."

Seventy days passed between his Masters failure and his first major championship, the 2011 U.S. Open. Those two months were integral in his personal and professional growth. He diligently studied what went wrong and worked to correct it.

"It was probably the most important two months of my life, the most important two months of my career," he says. "I learned a lot about myself as a golfer, and I knew everything that happened at Augusta that had went wrong. I knew what I needed to do to fix that and make sure that didn't happen again."

Augusta is different from everywhere else -- its mystique, tradition and history. It is the lone major venue the PGA Tour visits every year. Its images are copyrights, forever moments that belong solely to the Masters.

In 2009, when McIlroy played at Augusta for the first time, he couldn't help but miss watching the magic on television with his father, back home in Ireland.

"I remember thinking to myself: I'm never going to have that experience again, of watching it the way I did as a kid," McIlroy says. "People remember watching Masters Sunday. I had grown up with the Masters, and sitting down with my dad and watching, rooting for Tiger to win.

"Hopefully kids are now watching me try to win a green jacket, and hopefully they get that same excitement from watching me try to succeed."

It's spring now, and McIlroy is again considering that hole in his closet, considering the ghosts of Augusta and the hope of fulfilling little Rory's dream.

"I said it in an interview when I was 8 years old -- I want to be the best golfer in the world and I want to win all the majors," he says. "I've nearly done all of that. There's one piece of the puzzle that's missing."