'It will hurt him and hurt him hard' - Paul McGinley feels Rory McIlroy needs major win in 2016
Enough ground has been lost. In two humbling years, Rory McIlroy has gone from golf's undisputed No 1 to fourth best and must not suffer another majorless season and so fall even further behind the three players who usurped him. That is the view of Paul McGinley on the eve of Open week.
Like many, McGinley has been astounded how quickly the game’s narrative has changed since 2014. McIlroy finished that season having won back-to-back majors, with a World Golf Championship title in the middle, and marching tall as McGinley’s predominant hero in his Ryder Cup team’s victory over the US. But now, with Royal Troon beckoning and a fortnight after that the USPGA?
“It’s amazing, it wasn’t that long since we were sat here thinking ‘Rory’s the new Tiger, he’s our new superstar’ and it only seemed a question of how far into double figures he would go with majors – it was all about him,” McGinley said. “But then, last year it suddenly all became about Jordan [Spieth] with his two majors, then by the conclusion of 2015 and first few months of 2016, it was all about Jason [Day] with his major and extraordinary run and now it’s all about Dustin [Johnson] with his US Open breakthrough and then the WGC in Akron. Rory must wonder what’s happened.”
Of course, there were external factors. McIlroy’s infamous ankle injury 12 months ago, suffered in a kickabout with friends, precluded him from defending his Claret Jug at St Andrews and, very probably, from being able to mount a challenge in his USPGA defence as well. Yet that is sport and, regardless, McGinley believes the forthcoming examinations could be vital to his career.
“I tell you what, these next three weeks are going to be very important for Rory,” McGinley said. “If he goes through these without winning, that’ll be two years without a major and that’s going to hurt him and hurt him hard.
“And who would bet against Dustin winning one of the next two and Jason the other, with how well he’s played this year? And, if that doesn’t happen and Jordan wins his third, where would that leave Rory then?
“I don’t think Rory’s game has actually gone off that much – he won five times last year – it’s just that these guys have raised their game so much, that as a consequence Rory no longer has the confidence that he knows he’s better than everyone else. And that’s made the challenge so much tougher.”
As ever, McGinley figures, self-belief has so much to do with it, but there are other reasons. His form on the greens has not been nearly good enough and this has only compounded his ever-mounting error count which has too often left him impossible tasks on the major weekends.
“Rory has to get on top of his putting, the same way that Dustin has got on top of his wedge play recently,” McGinley said. “These three guys have hauled themselves to such a high standard that Rory cannot blow them away tee-to-green anymore.
“He doesn’t have to be the best putter; yet he does have to improve. But it’s more than that. Look, Rory will hate being No 4 and we are all expecting him to step up now. Normally, he’s been very good in his career at reacting to other people’s success. Except this year we haven’t seen it yet.
“He’s had one win in impressive fashion at the Irish Open. He had the least number of bogeys that week, which took him into contention and allowed him to do it down the stretch. The problem is that everywhere else he’s been making too many mistakes to be able to make a run on the Sunday.
“We all know he has the heart and the balls to win. We saw earlier on his career that sheer raw ambition to pull away from the field. But he’s lacking that at the moment, that final five per cent, lacking that focus.
“For some reason he’s not staying at that high level throughout the week. And he has to figure out why if he is to account for Dustin and the rest.”
It is a “Fab Four” scenario, with McIlroy in danger of becoming Ringo, which helps to give the 146th Open such flavour. Thank goodness we will be talking about the golf in Ayrshire instead of male-only membership, following Royal Troon’s vote last week to allow females to join.
McIlroy has been travelling to and fro over the Irish Sea from his Holywood home by helicopter for what, remarkably, have been his first trips around Troon and his assessment is “tough but fair” with the realisation that you make your hay on the outward half and try desperately not to watch it being scattered asunder coming in.
In truth, it is hard to look much further than Johnson. So much appears in his favour, not least the fact that Troon’s last six Open champions have all been American.
“Dustin’s the man to beat, in my opinion, no question,” McGinley said. “These top four guys have shown over the last few years that when they’re in a purple patch they’re brilliant, unstoppable almost.
“Rory started it, Jordan did it, Jason did it and Dustin has only just entered that purple patch. And this guy can play links golf, it is not alien to him. He played well in the first two rounds last year, nearly won the year Darren [Clarke] won [in 2011]. He can move the ball, he can drive it through those winds, he can take down those long par fours on Troon’s back nine into the wind.
“And his wedge play now. It’s incredible how a guy with that power can lead the stats from 75 to 125 yards on the PGA Tour. Together with the fade he has developed off the tee, which he can control far more, this had made him a formidable player.”
Naturally, there are other contenders. Sweden’s Henrik Stenson is well overdue, South Africa’s Branden Grace has all the tools, while, if fit enough after a bad back, Justin Rose could provide the English hope.
But in 2004, the last time the Open visited Troon, the largely unknown Todd Hamilton prevailed, beating Ernie Els in a play-off. It was mere further proof that in golf – and especially seaside golf – the favoured script means nothing. Nevertheless, it is time for McIlroy to grab it and make it his own again.
Paul McGinley is the Captain of the Ballantine’s Golf Club, the world’s first online golf club – a destination for golf fans worldwide to share in their passion of the game. The Club offers unique online content and exclusive opportunities for members to play the game they love. To join, visit Ballantinesgolfclub.com