Tuesday 17 July 2018

Comment: US Open flop confirms that Rory McIlroy's problems remain lodged between his two ears

Rory's late flourish after 27 holes of wind-hit woe confirmed that his problems are in his head

Rory McIlroy missed the cut at the US Open for the third successive year, adding to existing concerns about future challenges at this level. Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy missed the cut at the US Open for the third successive year, adding to existing concerns about future challenges at this level. Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy found comfort for his tortured game in the unlikely setting of the back nine at Shinnecock Hills last Friday evening. By that stage, however, a US Open cut had effectively eluded him for a third successive year, adding to existing concerns about future challenges at this level.

McIlroy had slipped to 14 over for the championship - six strokes beyond the projected cut - after a double-bogey on the ninth had brought him to the turn at 39 in the second round. Basically accepting his fate at that point, he proceeded to play free-wheeling golf on a homeward journey of 31, which contained birdies at the 11th, 13th, 16th and 17th for a level-par 70.

So what went wrong? "I felt like my game was good coming in here," said McIlroy. "I think I was just blown away by the wind [on Thursday, when he shot 80]. I haven't played in wind like that for quite a long time. I just felt like I couldn't hit it far enough left or right to allow for the wind.

"Get yourself out of position on this golf course and you give yourself a bogey and move on. Today I hit 17 out of 18 greens. Had I maybe just one day to prepare for something like that [Thursday's wind], I feel like it would have been a different story. It's a tough tournament and I came here with the right attitude, but I didn't putt very well."

We have been aware of McIlroy's attitude to wind from as far back at the 2010 Open Championship at St Andrews where, after a sparkling first round of 63, he slumped to an 80 in Friday's squall. So, in the absence of more profound revelations from the player at Shinnecock, we can only attempt to interpret what we're seen, with the help of some expert observers.

Butch Harmon, coach to Dustin Johnson, seemed to capture the essence of McIlroy's problems when he said: "Rory's got to start playing golf and stop playing golf-swing." Then, as an observation on the player's sparkling back nine on Friday, he added: "Because he was out of it (the championship), he relaxed and played like we know he can."

Which reminded me of the 2004 US Open at the same venue, where we wondered if Pádraig Harrington was yet ready for a Major breakthrough. "Pádraig certainly has the potential of a Major winner," said three-time Major champion Nick Price. "His problem is that sometimes he's a little over-analytical. He tries to play the game too precisely, instead of letting it flow.

"There's no great mystery about it. It's not about trying to win; it's about not making mistakes coming down the stretch. It's essentially a confidence thing. You don't beat yourself."

It could be argued that McIlroy must know these truths, given that he has four Major titles to his credit. His road to those successes, however, was very different to those of Price and Harrington. With a 'Jack the lad' attitude, he found that remarkable talent was more than enough to sweep to eight-shot victories in the 2011 US Open at Congressional and the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. Then came tighter but equally impressive triumphs in the 2014 Open at Royal Liverpool and the PGA at Valhalla.

Two years later, he reached the pinnacle as a PGA player by capturing the US Tour Championship, topped by the €10m FedEx Cup. Which could be viewed as the completion of phase one of his tournament career.

According to Paul McGinley, McIlroy has now entered a second, more mature phase, where the brashness of youth has to be replaced by a greater maturity in handling challenges. Where established rivals on Tour once bowed before his precocious skills, opponents such as Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth now treat him as no more than another talented player standing in their way.

Though it may seem a harsh judgement on a truly gifted practitioner, McIlroy has to learn that skill of itself is not enough to dominate any game. There is a wealth of truth in the assertion by Lee Trevino that when handing out talents, God never gives you everything: He always holds something back. What was held back in McIlroy's case has been the ability to tough it out in extreme adversity.

In which context his US Open challenge effectively ended after only five holes on Friday. By that stage, he had seen a 15-foot birdie putt stop on the lip of the first; he had three-putted the short second for a bogey and gone on to miss a glorious birdie chance by blocking a 270-yard long iron approach, wide of the long fifth.

Against this background, I'm drawn back yet again the 1981 Open Championship at Royal St George's. That was where Jack Nicklaus, on one of his least favourite links courses, declined to come to the media centre, just as McIlroy did last Thursday, after carding an almost incredible opening round of 83.

In the case of the Bear, however, there was the later explanation that he feared he might offer as an excuse the fact that he had gone to the first tee knowing one of his sons, Steven, was involved with the police over a motoring incident back home.

He agreed, however, to face a select group of scribes in the locker-room. And on being asked what the 83 meant in terms of his Open challenge, he replied calmly: "Obviously it means I'll have to shoot 65 or 66 tomorrow to make the cut." And he proceeded to card a stunning 66 on the Friday to make the cut with a stroke to spare.

Looking back on this latest US Open collapse by McIlroy, it wasn't as if he came into the championship playing badly. After sharing 20th place at Riviera on the PGA Tour in February, he went on to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He was then tied fifth in the US Masters and tied eighth in the Memorial.

As McGinley pointed out, McIlroy has, in fact, been surpassed by only one player internationally this year in terms of amassing world ranking points - the world number one, Johnson.

Shinnecock simply confirmed that his problems remain lodged between his two ears. The hope is that he will come to grips with the issue, before many more Major opportunities slip by.

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