Sunday 20 October 2019

Milestone birthday gives McIlroy plenty to ponder in Major pursuit

'In the big picture, McIlroy is leaving his 20s in a position only enjoyed by the very best.' Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images
'In the big picture, McIlroy is leaving his 20s in a position only enjoyed by the very best.' Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images

James Corrigan

As Rory McIlroy now practises mindfulness and is trying to remain in that state of active attention to the present without reflecting on the past or agonising over the future, it must be doubted if he will hold much stock in the significance, or otherwise, of turning 30 next Saturday.

But for the game of golf, if not beyond, his birthday is a chance to analyse the career so far of the extraordinary Northern Irishman.

And the fact that he will - cut willing - be playing in the third round of the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, the tournament where, as a 20-year-old, he announced himself to the world at large with his first win in America, will only give that contemplation greater resonance.

"It's been some journey for Rory to this point," says Paul McGinley, his friend and former Ryder Cup captain. "And it will be fascinating to see where it goes next."

In the big picture, McIlroy is leaving his 20s in a position only enjoyed by the very best. Since the Masters was incepted in 1934, only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have previously reached 30 with at least 15 PGA Tour titles and four Majors in their locker.

McIlroy has also won eight European Tour events, two more on the Asian and Australasian Tours, earned more than €50m on the course, more than double that off the course, and been in the winning team in four of five Ryder Cups. By anybody's standards that has to represent success.

Except with McIlroy it is never that simple and at this juncture in his life, as he makes the crossover into the age group, when, as columnist Blair Sabol noted, "you finally notice yourself acting like your parents", it seems particularly confused. Because here is a player apparently at the peak of his perhaps peerless powers but without a Major victory in almost five years.

"It shows how funny golf is," Nick Faldo says. "When Rory reached four with those back-to-back Majors in 2014, he appeared invincible and everyone said 'this lad's going to win a dozen'. But now he will simply be delighted when he gets that next one. You have to say he has time on his side, however."

The statisticians may disagree - well, half might anyway. As ever with the numbers, they can work in your favour whatever your bias. For those with a positive outlook, Faldo is a fine point of reference for McIlroy as he won each of his six Majors after he turned 30 (the first, the 1987 Open, by only a day). Pádraig Harrington was 36 when he broke through at the 2007 Open, before winning two more Majors by the end of the following season, when Phil Mickelson won the first of his five. Tiger Woods has won five of his 15 Majors in his post-20s and Nicklaus lifted 11 of his 18 Major titles at age 30-plus.

The Golden Bear plainly expects McIlroy also to get better with age.

"Maturity plays a great part in golf," Nicklaus said. "It really takes a long time to truly know how to play, to learn one's own game, and how to be patient with it. Some players learn earlier, but even then they tend to peak later." When it comes to the latter point, the stats back up Nicklaus.

Of the 27 other players who collected at least four Majors, only three of them (Young Tom Morris, Willie Anderson and Bobby Jones) failed to win one outside their 20s. Death was the reason for the first two and retirement for the latter.

But then, the trend is towards youth, as McIlroy will be aware, and this will surely inject some urgency into his mindset, should it be able to bypass the meditation. When he won the US PGA Championship in 2014 - his most recent Major - the average age for a Major champion going back to 1960 was 32. In the next four years, it was a little over 29, with Woods' Masters resurrection at 43 taking it above 30. Consider that in the past 59 years almost 80 per cent of Major winners have been 35 or under and it appears the next five years will probably be crucial to McIlroy's legacy.

His narrative has changed.

"My question is has he got time on his side, really?" McGinley said. "He's not the new kid any more. In 2014, Jordan Spieth wasn't there, nor was Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and, even though they're older, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson were not what they are now. That new wave hadn't come through. He was the only one driving it long and straight. No more he isn't. He's lost a big advantage.

"He's nowhere near that crest of the wave any more but when a guy's so talented, he's expected to win. You look at Dustin Johnson. How many times has he screwed up the last round but gotten a free ride? So with Rory, it's not a challenge of his game, it's not because he is putting badly and needs to get a new putting coach. He's been playing great this year, better than at any time since 2014. The challenge is a mental one and will continue to be."

McGinley believes McIlroy is well set in this regard. "I like what he is doing by trying to take away the pressure from himself and I can hear the influence of [mind coach, Dr Bob] Rotella coming through Brad Faxon [the former PGA Tour pro], who has become a mentor to Rory," he says. "To get to the next rung of the ladder, that was what was needed - a mentor.

"Rory is in a good place off the course, with his marriage and set-up in Florida."

Starting this week at Quail Hollow, he will attempt to shrug off the disappointment of his tie for 21st at the Masters. The US PGA Championship follows two weeks later and that will be his first Major as a 30-year-old.

As they say in mindfulness: "The moment is yours to take."


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