So Rory McIlroy has won again! He birdied five of the last six holes at Bay Hill on Sunday to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational. But you knew all that. Here’s a piece I made earlier, just before the season started…
It has been over three years since Rory McIlroy won a major championship. It’s been more than a year since he won any tournament. Heavens, it’s been months since he signed a mega contract for anything. As another feted Northern Irish sportsman was once asked: “Where did it all go wrong?”
George Best, sadly, is no longer among us. Rory McIlroy is a (basically) fit 28-year-old whose best years, it seems to some, belong in the game’s history books. After he missed the cut at last year’s US Open, Steve Elkington, the 1995 USPGA champion (sorry to mention that, Monty), spoke – or rather tweeted – for some of the sceptics when he said: “Rory is so bored playing golf…without Tiger the threshold is 4 majors with 100mill in the bank.” McIlroy wasn’t standing for that. He responded: “More like 200mil…not bad for a ‘bored’ 28-year-old…plenty more where that came from.”
I’m not sure it’s ever a good idea for multi-millionaires to brag about their earnings in public, but McIlroy was certainly up for the fight. On the other hand, since he won his fourth major championship, the 2014 Open at Hoylake, Jordan Spieth has won three of the things and Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Justin Thomas have all got off the mark.
Last April, McIlroy married his fiancée, Erica Stoll. Either side of that occasion, he signed a humungous 10-year apparel contract with Nike and another ridiculously handsome deal to play TaylorMade equipment, this after Nike had got out of that side of the golf business. His contracts with Santander, Omega and Bose don’t pay peanuts either. Off the course, everything is awesome. On it, he’s just had the worst year of his career. If we’re not counting Erica’s hand in marriage, in 2017 he won nothing.
A rib injury sustained in South Africa at the beginning of last year led to him being sidelined for two months in the winter, disrupting his preparation for the Masters. The ongoing fall-out from that problem led to him ending his season after just 18 tournaments (his last competitive round was on October 8) so that he could concentrate on preparing for the season ahead.
Speaking just before beginning his extended break, McIlroy said: “These three months off could give me the foundation to have the next 10 years be even better than the 10 years I’ve had. Hopefully, that turns a great career into one of the greatest careers.”
He admitted the obvious. “This hasn’t been the year I wanted on the golf course. [For which read, I guess, “married life is great”.] I started off with grand ambitions of trying to add to my major tally and trying to win golf tournaments. I haven’t won and the results haven’t been what I wanted [seven top-10s and four missed cuts from the 18 starts] but I feel like I can still salvage something from the rest of the year, even though I won’t be playing. I feel that with the experience I have now, I’m a much better player than I was in 2011 and 2012, when I was able to win a couple of majors. I think I can do better than that in the next 10 years. That’s why I feel these next three months are very important for putting some really good things into place.”
There was also this. “My first goal is to win the Masters, for the career Grand Slam, and then try to become the best European golfer ever; try and surpass Nick Faldo [who won six majors]. And then, if I had a career goal, it would be to be the best international golfer ever. Gary Player has nine majors. I’d like to think I’m going to give myself a chance to get close to that tally.”
McIlroy is the only European golfer to complete three legs of the Grand Slam. He has four in all: two USPGA Championships (2012 and 2014), a US Open (2011) and the Open (2014). If he wins at Augusta in April he will become only the sixth professional golfer to complete the deal. But pressure comes with that; pressure that has been there on his past three visits to the Masters when he has driven down Magnolia Lane knowing this could be the week he joins Messrs Sarazen, Hogan, Player, Nicklaus and Woods in that ultra-exclusive club. As he admitted last year to Derek Lawrenson of the Daily Mail: “I am a complete prat in the week leading up to Augusta. It’s a stressful situation.” He also conceded: “I’d love to say my life is already fulfilled, but there’d be a tiny piece missing. Yes, I wouldn’t be fulfilled if I didn’t get [a green jacket].” The pain would, of course, be all the greater for him having squandered a four-shot final-round lead there in 2011.
In each of the past three years he’s finished in the top-10 at Augusta, which sounds like a damn good effort, but there is a disappointing truth beneath the bald statement of that stat: he was never close to victory. Indeed, in the 11 majors he’s contested since his win in the USPGA at Valhalla (he didn’t play in the 2015 Open Championship because of a foot injury he’d sustained playing football), he has had six top-10s, three of those being top-fives, but he was never closer than five shots from the winner and on five of the six occasions his last round was his best of the week. Put another way, he only produced the goods when it was too late. (BTW, in three of the other five, he missed the cut.)
Denis Pugh, a well-regarded golf teacher and a regular pundit on Sky Sports’ golf coverage, sees it this way. “I think Rory has always been a streaky player in general. When he’s on he is fantastic but sometimes he can look ordinary. But that is the reality in the post-Tiger world. Woods could win tournaments with his B game, even his C game, but that doesn’t apply to anyone else. Rory hasn’t won a major since 2014, but in part that has been down to the brilliance of other players. It’s like when we had the Big 5 in Europe – Seve, Faldo, Langer, Lyle and Woosie – and we would ask ‘who wins if they all play their best?’ With the players today, I think you have three who are at that level. Rory is one of those. But even at his best, he can get out-bombed by Dustin and out-putted by Jordan, so I don’t think you’d say for sure he would win in the circumstances that they all played their best.”
It’s not as if McIlroy was the only top golfer to have had a disappointing season in 2017. For different reasons, Jason Day and Adam Scott have faded somewhat, albeit maybe only temporarily. Stenson hasn’t built on his epic Open triumph at Troon, and while Johnson ended the year ranked No. 1, it was hardly the season he’d have hoped for after three consecutive wins sent him to Augusta for the apparent formality of putting on the winner’s jacket. A pre-tournament tumble down some stairs put paid to that, although there is no evidence that Sergio Garcia did the deed.
McIlroy began this year ranked the 11th best golfer in the world. Over the course of his career, he has been No. 1 for 95 weeks. Historically, Faldo is in third place in that regard, with 97 weeks. McIlroy needs only three more weeks at the summit to move behind only Woods and Greg Norman on the all-time list. We’ll see how his first three months go but victory at Augusta on April 8 – exactly six months after he walked off the Old Course at St Andrews in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship – would assuredly get him moving in that direction.
Last year he finished six shots out of the playoff in which Garcia beat Justin Rose but at least he seemed to be on track towards regaining his best form. It was not to be. After his wedding in late April, he returned to the range in earnest, getting used to his new TaylorMade clubs. It seems he overdid the practice, to the extent that the rib problem flared up again, causing him acute discomfort at the Players Championship, where he hobbled home in a tie for 35th. He then withdrew from the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, not least so he could prepare for the US Open at Erin Hills the following month – where he missed the cut (as Elkington noted).
Despite McIlroy’s comparatively indifferent play last year, Pugh believes in the fundamentals of his game. “I think his swing has evolved, and for the better. His lower-body action is better than it was; his legs and hips. It’s a much smoother movement than it used to be. He looks to generate power with such a comparative lack of effort because he produces such tremendous speed from his body. It’s like the arms are just going along for the ride.”
A week before the Open at Royal Birkdale, where Spieth would end the week by joining McIlroy in being one major shy of the Grand Slam (in his case the USGA Championship), Rory was talking a good story even while acknowledging it was a tough act to sell.
“I’m close,” he said. “It’s hard to stand in front of a camera every time and say that because I sound a bit like a broken record, but really it’s not far away.” And at Birkdale it wasn’t, although Spieth’s miraculous last six holes meant McIlroy’s tie for fourth was not as close as it might sound. On the other hand, he might have been nearer the champion had he not double-bogeyed the 10th hole on Saturday after hitting a 3-iron into a bunker off the tee. The whisper was that his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, had told him the club took the hazard out of play. Although McIlroy had praised his caddie for geeing him up when he was five over par after six holes of his first round – “You’re Rory McIlroy, what the fuck are you doing?” Fitzgerald had asked him – this was perceived to be misstep too far by the bagman. For the Bridgestone Invitational at the beginning of August, his caddie was a close mate of his, Harry Diamond (cue your own geezer line), who had been the best man at his wedding. At the time of writing, Harry will be retaining the gig for this season, too.
McIlroy seemed destined to be talked up as the ‘next Tiger’ even before the real one was past his prime. When Rory won his first European Tour event, the Dubai Desert Classic in February 2009, we didn’t know Woods would not win another major between then and now or that he would drive his car into a fire hydrant that November, an accident which would take his marriage and, eight more victories notwithstanding, his career with it. Woods is apparently set on the comeback trail again, but we all remember how that plan worked out for him last season. Disastrously. If he were to be a regular on tournament leaderboards again, he would inevitably be the talk of the trade. To that extent, McIlroy’s attempts to get back to the top of the pile would occur out of the most intense limelight. Having said that, I figure he’ll have a more rewarding 2018 than will the man whom he replaced, if to date for only a little over three years, as the most exciting player in the game.
Pugh certainly thinks he’s due. “Rory hasn’t won a major championship for three years,” he says, “but I would be surprised if he didn’t win one in the next three. In fact, I’d say two out of the next 12 would be a reasonable target.”
When McIlroy left Titleist and signed his enormous Nike contract in 2013, it took him almost a year to win a tournament of any sort. The naysayers had a field day, accusing him of stupidly switching sticks because he was more interested in money than majors; happy to jeopardize his career for lucre. Within a further nine months, though, he had won two more major championships. Getting accustomed to his new TaylorMade gear has clearly taken time – this not being helped by his recurring rib troubles, those being at least in part brought about because of the practice time he has devoted to trying to get used to his new clubs – and that assimilation may still be a work in progress. We shall soon find out. But if he were to win at least one major this year, with the equipment familiarity process complete, then don’t count me among the surprised.
This piece originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Golf World