IIf he had not seen such riches, he could live being poor. Any evaluation of a career for Rory McIlroy without claiming a major championship, which has now spanned six years and eight months, comes with longing. McIlroy at his best delivers a sporting masterpiece.
McIlroy has won two of his four biggest so far by eight shots. Although the margin of victory at the 2014 Open Championship was much smaller, McIlroy controlled that event from start to finish. Just a few weeks later at the US PGA Championship, the ease with which he rallied from Sunday’s position midway through the round from three shots behind highlighted the strength to match the skill. At the time, on August 10, 2014, there was a legitimate feeling that McIlroy dominated golf for an extended period.
McIlroy can scoff at questioning where everything has gone wrong since then. He has been number one in the world and has won 11 times on the PGA and European tours since leaving Valhalla. At just 31 years old, even with an emerging generation of intrepid young professionals making their mark, McIlroy has a right to believe that there is plenty of reason for optimism.
And yet, before the recent Players Championship, McIlroy received a question that had reason to throw him off balance. “Have you ever felt that the best of your career could be behind you?” McIlroy smiled, suggesting that he knew full well that this discussion surrounds him. “No,” McIlroy said. “I don’t think you can ever think that. You have to be an eternal optimist in this game, and I truly believe that my best days are ahead. You have to believe that.
“It doesn’t make sense to be here if I didn’t think that. That is not part of my psyche or anyone’s psyche here. I think that’s the difference between people who make it to the elite level and those who don’t, because they don’t think that way. I certainly think my best days are ahead and I’m working hard to make sure they do. ”And he works hard, to a level that viewers often underestimate.
McIlroy went on to completely miss the cut at Sawgrass, with predictions of doom for his Masters chances only intensified by a beating from Ian Poulter at the WGC Match Play. Lost in a deep-seated analysis of McIlroy’s adversity is the fact that he will return to Augusta National this week with another opportunity to join the select group of male golfers who have all the greats won.
McIlroy’s career highlights a great ability to produce amazing reactions. If he had finished 31st in the Players and made the last eight of the Match Play, there would be no apparent need to recover. Instead, it has a lot to build on. The capitulation at the 2011 Masters was followed by victory at the US Open. Longer fights in 2013 preceded huge success the following year. McIlroy was injured missing the cut at his home Open in Portrush in 2019; his response led him to FedEx Cup glory and world number one. As Padraig Harrington put it: “Rory is just one shot away from playing great.” No player can flip the switch like McIlroy.
McIlroy’s current scenario is unusual because here we have such a natural artist in the grip of technical malaise. McIlroy has turned to renowned coach Pete Cowen to help him rediscover the feelings within his swing. McIlroy traced his troubles late last year, when Bryson DeChambeau’s beating of Winged Foot at the US Open began a quest to add more duration to the game. McIlroy wasn’t a short hitter to begin with.
There are two obvious dangers associated with the formalization of McIlroy’s long-standing relationship with Cowen. Swing issues may dominate and confuse McIlroy’s mind. It’s also fair to ask where McIlroy can turn if Cowen doesn’t offer the enhancement the couple is looking for. However, the frankly speaking Yorkshire man has a track record that speaks for itself; smart money would be in this alliance bearing fruit. But when, of course, is the key question. This Masters is unusual with respect to the question marks looming over the shape of many of the tournament’s marquee names.
After a poor first round in November, McIlroy responded by roaring Augusta with scores of 66, 67 and 69. This delivered a sixth top-10 in seven Masters starts. In short, you can clearly handle this golf course. The big unknown is whether McIlroy still has enough confidence in his current swing to eliminate the kind of shots that ruin shots in a green jacket.
McIlroy has no problem being judged by different standards than most golfers. You’ll find that with a week to go to the Masters, ranking 11th in the world rankings, behind, among others, Patrick Cantlay, Webb Simpson and Tyrrell Hatton, represents a ridiculous situation on the basis of talent alone. It is quite possible that Augusta National itself summons a much-needed comfort level for McIlroy. Despite all his troubles in 2021, he would be a fool to exclude him from the Masters permutations.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism