Tuesday 22 October 2019

McIlroy must address issues to keep Major window open

Rory McIlroy says he can’t afford to be complacent seeking more Major victories. Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy says he can’t afford to be complacent seeking more Major victories. Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Brian Keogh

Jack Nicklaus, 24 years. Gary Player, 19 years. Ernie Els, 18 years. Lee Trevino; Ray Floyd and Hale Irwin, 16 years.

There are many examples of great players whose multiple Major-winning careers spanned more than a decade and many compelling reasons to believe that Rory McIlroy can do the trick when he's in his early 40s, just as Phil Mickelson or Els did a few years ago.

With caddie Harry Diamond during The Open Championship last July. Photo: Getty Images
With caddie Harry Diamond during The Open Championship last July. Photo: Getty Images

Of course, McIlroy will not be thinking ahead to 2029 and beyond just yet but thinking of winning his fifth in his 20s at August National next April.

He'll be more than aware through his talks with the likes of Nick Faldo, whose six Major wins came in a nine-year spell, that the window of opportunity is not as wide as it might appear.

But he also knows from observing the careers of Nicklaus or Tiger Woods that if you play on tour for more than 20 years, ups and downs are part of the deal.

Looking closely at the 20 players who've won three Majors or more over the last 60 years, starting with Gary Player in 1959, the average Major-winning lifespan is a sobering 9.85 years.

Celebrating with the Arnold Palmer Invitational trophy in March. AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
Celebrating with the Arnold Palmer Invitational trophy in March. AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

In other words, if McIlroy turns out to be your "average", modern Major winner, his best-before date could come as soon as 2020.

If he's more like Nicklaus, Player, Els, Trevino, Floyd or Irwin, we can look forward to enjoying another decade sprinkled with McIlroy Majors.

Whatever the result of recent efforts by European Tour CEO Keith Pelley to get his biggest draw-card to remain a loyal member, many will be watching McIlroy's 2019 progress with added interest.

In an era when the world number one ranking has become the equivalent of golf's revolving door - six players have worn the crown no fewer than 15 times since McIlroy last ruled the roost in September, 2015 - we're overdue another golden run by the pride of Holywood, Co Down.

Gary Player. Photo by Julian Herbert/Gallo Images/Getty Images
Gary Player. Photo by Julian Herbert/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Eleven men have added Major titles to their resumés since McIlroy won at Valhalla in 2014, with Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka winning three apiece.

"You definitely can't be complacent," McIlroy said after winning the Race to Dubai for the third time in four years in 2015 when Spieth and Jason Day had overtaken him in the world rankings.

"I had a big lead in the world rankings and you see Jordan and Jason play the way they did. Fields are so deep, you can't let up at all. This is my time to capitalise on my career. The next 10, 15 years is my time."

Three seasons have passed and McIlroy hasn't managed to win consistently enough to get back to the top of the world rankings.

Eight top-10s in Majors do not cut it. Forget consistency. What McIlroy needs is what Pádraig Harrington calls "a little bit of the erratic genius in your game".

"The great thing about Rory," the Dubliner insists, "is he's only ever one golf shot away from playing great."

A little consistency in McIlroy's putting and wedge play wouldn't go astray but whether he has the patience to focus on this and get away from perennial fiddling with his schedule remains to be seen.

While coach Michael Bannon, his father Gerry and his caddie Harry Diamond remain constants in his life, mentors, especially those with putting expertise, have failed to stick around.

Days after The Open at Royal Birkdale in 2017, caddie JP Fitzgerald was also let go after a decade on the bag.

Seven wins since 2014 have brought him the FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai crowns. But when you enter the Major-winning realm, it looks like slim pickings.

Last year, he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a scintillating finish, contended for the Masters and racked up no fewer than 10 top-10 finishes.

Mortals

For most ordinary mortals, it would go down as a good year but McIlroy only gave himself a B-minus because he knows he didn't take advantage of his chances to win despite making it into the final group six times.

"I don't want to continue to dwell on the negatives," he said in Dubai last month, admitting there were "areas" of his game that needed work.

He blamed some uncharacteristic waywardness with the driver for his failure to get the job done on Sunday at the Masters, the BMW PGA, the WGC Bridgestone Invitational and the Tour Championship.

But he didn't go into detail about the key putts missed at Augusta or the average short iron play at key moments in Carnoustie, especially on the 72nd hole where he needed a good wedge shot and left himself a putt from another parish.

Finding ways to remain motivated and hit the gym and the range when you have multiple millions in the bank is a challenge, as is addressing a sometimes infuriating lack of consistency with short irons or a lack of belief with the putter.

Ranked 125th for strokes gained on the greens in 2015, he was 139th in 2016 and 141st in 2017 before recording a modest improvement to 97th last year - albeit losing strokes to the field in half the events he played.

While he remains the longest driver of the ball on the PGA Tour, he's no longer the most effective, finishing 70th for total driving last season, a long way behind his Ryder Cup team-mates Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari, who all ranked in the top five.

As one of the most marketable players on either side of the pond, and one of the most pleasant, he's got no hiding place.

Winning the Open and the US PGA in quick succession in 2014 to bring his Major tally to four prompted euphoria and comparisons with Woods and Nicklaus that have been difficult to justify.

"Look, I've always said that my performances in the Majors at that point that wasn't the norm," McIlroy argued at Carnoustie last July, putting forward the theory that over time, "everything finds its balance".

Bar any late additions to his schedule (there's speculation he may add the Omega Dubai Desert Classic to his schedule), next week's appearance in Kapalua will be McIlroy's only event in a 13-week spell between last season's DP World Tour Championship Dubai and the Genesis Open at Riviera in mid-February.

Intense practice (plus a little home decor to renovate the Florida abode he bought from Els) will keep him busy and trigger real interest next week in hearing not only his intentions regarding European Tour membership, but his plans to assert himself at the top of the game again.

It's clear that Augusta National, US PGA venue Bethpage State Park, and Open venue Royal Portrush are all eminently more suited to his game than Pebble Beach, where the US Open will be held next June.

Building his dream home will take up some time before he reappears in LA in February but discovering what building blocks he's putting in place for the decade ahead remains a far more fascinating topic of conversation.

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