AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The wry smile was borne more of resignation than satisfaction. Rory McIlroy walked off Augusta National's 18th green on Sunday with another back-door top-10 finish secured, the Masters to be won by somebody else.
The only major championship separating him from a career Grand Slam is proving to be mighty elusive. Aside from 2011, the year he held the 54-hole lead and then imploded on the back nine, McIlroy has never really been a legitimate Sunday contender.
He was 6 strokes back starting the final round on Sunday and was going to need far more than the 69 he produced. Given the number of players he needed to pass, it was an unrealistic ask, anyway. And so it was that McIlroy finished in a tie for seventh, which looks good on the résumé but does nothing for his major trophy collection.
"It wasn't quite as adventurous as previous Masters have been for me,'' McIlroy said. "I didn't get too high with some really low nine-hole scores, but I didn't shoot any nine-hole scores that were in the 40s. It was quite a consistent, steady Masters for me.
"It wasn't quite good enough. I felt like I had an opportunity [Saturday] to shoot something in the mid-to high 60s, which would have got me closer to the lead today, and I didn't quite do that. I gave a decent account for myself and will come back next year and try again.''
What more could he say? There was no glaring weakness, really. McIlroy played the par-5s in 7 under par, though he made just a single birdie at the 15th and had no eagles. He had a double-bogey at the seventh on Saturday, but that was hardly a tournament buster.
McIlroy was not stellar on the greens, perhaps the biggest flaw in his game. He is simply an average to decent putter, not great. He ranked 31st in strokes gained putting and missed four inside of 5 feet. And yet, had he made them all, it still would not have made up the difference.
"Coming off the golf course yesterday I was frustrated,'' McIlroy said. "But after today I'm encouraged again just from just how I felt around the course. I felt comfortable. I felt like I had a really good chance. I prepared really well, I feel. I came up here a couple of times and enjoyed my time here and just played. And I feel that serves me well, and that's something I'm totally going to adapt to the future.''
McIlroy, 27, has now played the Masters nine times, with a best finish of fourth two years ago when he was 6 strokes behind Jordan Spieth. This is his fourth straight top-10 after never placing so high, even in 2011 when he was in the best position to win before shooting 43 on the back nine.
"He's so young still,'' said Ernie Els, who can relate to the expectations associated with the Masters. "It doesn't seem like it's burning him too much. He's keeping a good attitude. He has the perfect game for this place. If he could win one, he'd probably win a bunch of them.''
Of course they said the same thing about Els, who completed his 23rd Masters on Sunday without ever winning it and is likely not going to earn an invitation back. Greg Norman never won here, either, and his heartbreak has been well-documented. There are no guarantees.
If McIlroy needs to do something different, it is difficult to pinpoint what it is. A rib injury kept him out of action for seven weeks, and yet he' has returned to finish in the top-10 of the three stroke-play events he has played.
He came to Augusta on a couple of occasions to get in practice rounds, and said he got in 99 holes prior to tournament week. He didn't overdo it with his schedule, skipping the Houston Open last week.
"I really am getting more comfortable,'' he said. "I feel like every time I tee it up here I have a real good chance to win. My record over the past four years sort of reflects that in terms of being in the top 10; top-10s right now isn't good enough. It's going in the right direction. And every time I come back here I feel like I have more and more of a chance to win.''
Now it is on with the rest of his life. McIlroy will not play again until the Players Championship next month. He is getting married in a few weeks to fiancée Erica Stoll, followed by a honeymoon.
There are other major championships to come, and McIlroy is looking forward to those as well.
But there was a moment of reflection Sunday at Augusta National.
"It would have been nice to walk down the aisle in a green jacket,'' he said.
McIlroy smiled at the thought.