We have learned a lot about Rory McIlroy in the past six years. The pursuit of digital minimalism, a passion for Ryan Holiday books and irritation at the countless assumptions made about his mindset have shone through. Arguably they have had to, thanks to a subtle switch in narrative.
McIlroy did not fuel discussion about domination of his sporting domain in 2014 because his clubs had done that for him. Back-to-back major wins – at the Open and US PGA Championships – had set him apart. He was within two of Nick Faldo’s majors haul of six and firmly on course to be labelled Europe’s greatest golfer before turning 30. A similar discussion involving a pantheon of greats for United Kingdom sportsmen wasn’t at all fanciful.
It would be a gross exaggeration to question where it has all gone wrong. Which doesn’t prevent clubhouse quarterbacks from trying. Since that US PGA triumph at Valhalla, he has won nine times on the PGA Tour, twice in Dubai, once in Ireland and regularly topped the world rankings.
McIlroy has never had any issue about being judged differently to his peers. He understands the reputational value of the four marquee events. Jack Nicklaus is known as an 18-times major champion, not for three Players successes or a canter at the Ohio Kings Island Open. Winners’ cheques read like telephone numbers now but golfers are judged by an identical currency to bygone years. “I’ve grown up dreaming of winning these tournaments,” said McIlroy as he prepared for the US Open, starting on Thursday at Winged Foot, New York. “And that’s not going to change.”
That his major total has not been improved upon in six years must be an oddity. It is naturally easier for the man himself to take because he has not tossed a handful away from winning positions. That, and already holding a quartet in his trophy room.
At 31, McIlroy should have some of the best years of his career ahead of him. A window of six majors between now and the Open closing at Royal St George’s next July means there has never been a better time for the world No 4 to seize upon opportunity, re-establishing himself as the world’s preeminent golfer.
“If you’ve looked at my major championship performances over the last few years, I’ve just gotten off to slow starts,” he says. “I probably just put a little too much pressure on myself going into tournaments. And from there, shooting a bad score on the first day and putting yourself under even more pressure to just make it to the weekend, then to try to play catch-up. That’s been the big thing.”
Winged Foot will inevitably prove a brutal test. The winning score will almost certainly be over par. McIlroy knows about the sadistic nature of the United States Golf Association all right, . “Thank God I’ve got one of these,” he said in Chambers Bay carnage in 2015. McIlroy won the US Open four years earlier. He duly missed the cut three times in a row before returning with a top 10 in 2019.
If precise driving is key to conquering Winged Foot, McIlroy deserves to be among the favourites. “It’s awesome,” he says. “It’s hard, but it’s very, very fair.”
One concern may be a natural propensity to shoot for glory from dicey situations; merely chipping back into play from US Open rough is an annual virtue. Even if McIlroy doesnot prevail on Sunday, Masters tilts – he needs only a Green Jacket to complete a career grand slam – in November and April, plus a US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island must excite. McIlroy swaggered to the Wanamaker Trophy at Kiawah in 2012.
There are mitigating circumstances behind the six-year itch. McIlroy has suffered from injuries and bad breaks. He has run into golfers destined to end major droughts. Marriage and moving home are huge positives in his life but involved an element of upheaval. McIlroy has admitted to recent struggles in fan-free environments, such is the level of electricity to which he was once accustomed.
It now remains to be seen whether the birth of baby Poppy and the appallingly labelled “nappy factor” can somehow drive McIlroy towards glory. There is precedent for this but players the world over also enter parenthood without any distinct upturn in fortunes. If the theory is that McIlroy may benefit from a renewed perspective, he has never struggled in that sense anyway. Criticism of McIlroy because he is not consumed by winning tournaments is unfair given on-course motivation has never looked short in supply. If he otherwise projects a healthy peace of mind, good on him.
McIlroy’s consistency is worthy of credit. Perhaps his status is taken for granted. Jordan Spieth has fallen off a competitive cliff since swatting aside all before him in 2015. Jason Day and Rickie Fowler are 37th and 38th in the world respectively, Sergio García is 46th.
It could be that McIlroy will admit, on the basis he will enter a major winner’s circle again, that this period was more of an annoyance than he was earlier minded to admit. Yet he doesn’t have previous for publicly masking feelings. McIlroy obviously believes majors will be a natural consequence of sharp processes elsewhere. Applying over emphasis is to his detriment.
Golf does not need a dominant McIlroy, but it hugely benefits from his prominence. Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm can light up tournaments with extraordinary play but McIlroy at full throttle remains the finest sight of all. His is a talent that transcends the sport, and illustrates why “Rory” is the only reference point casual observers require. The clock isn’t ticking; it would just be terrific to see it turned back during this congested major spell.