Thursday 17 October 2019

Rory can find antidote to scepticism with timely Major win

Rory McIlroy: ‘I don’t need to change my game’. Photo: Getty Images
Rory McIlroy: ‘I don’t need to change my game’. Photo: Getty Images

Ewan Murray

Light was fading badly the last time Rory McIlroy claimed a Major. You do not have to scratch far to discover a sense that the scene at Valhalla, four years ago, has become a metaphor for the subsequent phase of his career. That the notion is fatally skewed requires explanation as McIlroy returns to the US PGA Championship.

The desire - and occasional rush - to cast the four-time Major champion in a negative light bears little resemblance to reality. This summer, murmurs surrounding McIlroy have been a recurring feature. Butch Harmon, the respected coach and TV analyst, waded in during the Open, branding McIlroy robotic. Harmon rather unnecessarily added that McIlroy must "forget about endorsement contracts".

Colin Montgomerie joined the debate with a needlessly personal assault on McIlroy's caddie, Harry Diamond. "The caddie is a friend," said the Scot. "He sounds like a Bond villain. But is he strong enough to take authority? Yes, Rory is in charge but he might need something from his caddie. Is Harry strong enough to do that? Does he have the authority like Jordan Spieth's caddie, for instance? Possibly not."

As McIlroy finished in a share of second at the Open, his Sunday eagle putt at the 14th one of the enduring images of the tournament, Spieth was spluttering to a 76 and tie for ninth. Suffice to say, caddie influence on either player wasn't a hot topic. It was not, either, when McIlroy won in stunning fashion at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.

Diamond was not picked from a Holywood lucky dip; he is McIlroy's closest confidant, a top-class amateur and the individual most likely to keep him calm in moments of potential distress.

The downbeat discussion around McIlroy does not have an obvious explanation beyond the perverse desire to take pot shots at heroes. He is neither brash nor offensive. That he has not kept pace with his own earlier run of a quartet of Major successes by the age of 25 - including two in as many months - is more in keeping with the game's history than is generally accepted. Should McIlroy add a single Major to his CV, he will match the haul of Seve Ballesteros and find himself just one adrift of Nick Faldo.

Given his earlier propensity to encounter peaks and troughs, the surprising aspect of McIlroy's season is his consistency. The runners-up position at Carnoustie contributed to a results sequence that includes three top 10s - including at the Masters - in the US.

He entered this weekend's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with a sub-70 scoring average on the PGA Tour. In Europe, McIlroy has returned two second places and a third. All of this has transpired without McIlroy regularly playing his best.

The perception is that McIlroy tossed away the Masters to Patrick Reed , which ignores the fact the American started day four with a three-shot advantage. McIlroy's upset at not claiming the one Major that has eluded him was plain; by his own admission, he barely left his sofa for days on end. Yet, this was the first time McIlroy had properly contended at Augusta National since his 2011 fourth-round meltdown.

This, the 100th playing of the PGA of America's Major, sees McIlroy and Co visit a site that was due to host a World Golf Championship during the week of the Twin Towers atrocity in 2001. That tournament was cancelled, like that year's Ryder Cup. Players this time will encounter sweltering heat and a course stretching to almost 7,500 yards. The appearance of two par fives in a total of 70 is the only similarity to Carnoustie.

"I've always felt less pressure at the PGA because it's a tournament I've always felt comfortable at," McIlroy said. "I don't need to change my game. I've always felt like it's my most comfortable Major and I think the results back that up."

In Missouri this coming week, McIlroy may glean added incentive from the Major's one-time moniker of "Glory's last shot". Rory's last shot? Albeit the FedEx Cup and Ryder Cup are significant items on the remainder of the year's calendar, the delivering of another Major would be a timely antidote to external scepticism.


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