Sport Golf

Tuesday 17 September 2019

David Kelly: 'Rory McIlroy must heed lessons of FedEx glory to deliver Major success'

Rory McIlroy celebrates with the FedEx Cup after his victory in Atlanta. Photo: USA Today Sports
Rory McIlroy celebrates with the FedEx Cup after his victory in Atlanta. Photo: USA Today Sports
David Kelly

David Kelly

Rory McIlroy’s comeback success at the Tour Championship not only delivered a substantial FedEx wheelbarrow of cash into his bank account.

It could also represent a signature statement after a remarkable season of contrasts. It depends on how he chooses to interpret it.

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And also what he can discover about himself as he sifts through the evidence of a season which delivered more than many contemporaries could have imagined and yet will still leave a residue of mournful regret.

No golfer was as consistent as he in 2019 and, most certainly, as amplified by the €13m booty pocketed at East Lake golf club on Sunday, nobody earned as much money from what he self-deprecatingly refers to as "hitting a little white ball around a field."

And yet another year passed by without a Major success, the tears that trickled following his abysmal atrophying on home turf of boyhood dreams revealing an adult in the midst of tortured tumult.

How is it that the man who crumbled at Portrush was the same as that whose charismatic presence out-gunned all rivals on the weekend?

Rory McIlroy pumps his fist, the patrons cheer, and Brooks Koepka looks as as the birdie putt drops to win the Tour Championship golf tournament and The FedEx Cup on Sunday at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. Photo: Curtis Compton/AP
Rory McIlroy pumps his fist, the patrons cheer, and Brooks Koepka looks as as the birdie putt drops to win the Tour Championship golf tournament and The FedEx Cup on Sunday at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. Photo: Curtis Compton/AP

The golfer who had at one stage endured nine successive Saturday nights preparing to play in the final pairing, only to endure nine successive Sunday nights pondering defeat, turned into a veritable winning machine in 2019.

Whereas at one stage he had just one victory in 30 months, this year he won three times, the fifth time he has won three or more events in a calendar year but the first time he has done so since 2016.

And yet he didn’t win one of the four titles that, at this stage of his career, means so much to him.

Sunday represented the 14th time he finished amongst the top ten but this was a remarkable consistency which would somehow eluded him on the four weeks that matter so much.

And perhaps it is the fact they matter so much which remains the nagging problem; McIlroy continues to insist he freights no mental baggage into Major weeks but he has still attempted a variety of mental approaches.

He has engaged mind boffins to amplify the messages from putting perfectionists and swing gurus.

Instead of emptying his mind, he has instead filled it.

And then he has emptied the proceeds in the media tent beforehand, ramping up the already intense pressure he places upon himself to perform.

Too often, he has talked about a good game so profusely that it almost seems as if he then simply forgot how to play it.

If only he could package the elements that, a year on from being utterly out-played by Tiger Woods, saw him revel in some of the most riveting golf seen on the PGA Tour all season.

From the tee, five strokes gained on the field, to the green, 2.467 strokes gained, McIlroy was imperious in the tour finale.

But until he wins another Major – and the question marks will resound ever more deafeningly once the first Azaleas begin to flower in the spring – his career will remain, for many, largely unfulfilled.

Presumably to him, too.

He will know that for all the bounty of 2019, the absence of a Major win places a stubbornly large asterisk on his achievements.

"Rory has outplayed Brooks by a mile in how he’s done the entire year," observes Justin Thomas.

"It's unbelievable how he’s played. But the most important thing is wins and playing great in the big events, and nobody has done that better than Brooks.

"I don't know how you don't give Brooks the Player of the Year with three wins and a major and a WGC and top four in every major."

That's the bottom line.

McIlroy entered 2019 questioning his approach to the Majors but found himself unable to locate the answers.

Can 2020 be any different?

He has admitted his strategy failed this year and that he should have placed more, not less, emphasis on each Major championship.

Last weekend, he realised that instead of treating one day more seriously than any other, he realised that to beat Koepka, he had to make every moment count.

He did that more than most in 2019 but not when it mattered most. From nineteen events, three wins, 14 top 10s, 16 top 25s.

No majors. He has spent so long searching for the answer, it seems like he’s forgotten the question.

Nobody doubts Rory McIlroy has what it takes to win another Major.

But only when he himself stops doubting about what it takes to win a Major can he make it happen.

Rory McIlroy doesn't need anyone else to tell him how to be the best. Except himself.

Being in the moment can make the moment become something. Perhaps he should try it more often.

Online Editors

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