Wednesday 17 July 2019

Rory McIlroy a master of his own destiny as he targets a place as a golfing great

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Photo: AP
Photo: AP
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

When Rory McIlroy won the US PGA Championship in August 2014 it seemed a hugely important victory, the kind which announces the beginning of a new era. The way he won it, repelling the final-round challenges of a host of world-class rivals, was impressive enough. But even more significant was the fact that he had won the British Open three weeks previously, making him just the third golfer in 30 years, along with Tiger Woods and Pádraig Harrington, to win successive Majors.

In between those wins had come a thrilling victory in the Bridgestone Invitational. McIlroy was the first golfer to win three PGA events on the trot since Woods a dozen years earlier. Woods and Jack Nicklaus were the only other golfers to have won four Majors by the age of 25.

Nicklaus himself declared, in the aftermath of that tour de force at Valhalla, that McIlroy could well win 15 or 20 Majors. This was merely the most striking version of a statement you heard all the time back then, that McIlroy, "will win as many Majors as he wants to". His performance in 2014 seemed to prove that this and the related belief that the Irishman would be Woods' successor were undeniable truths.

The new era has not dawned. Three and a half years later that apparently pivotal Major victory is McIlroy's last to date. As the first Major of the year approaches, 2018 seems an absolutely vital year in the life of perhaps the most naturally-gifted Irish sportsman since George Best.

It might seem ludicrous to suggest that a player who was in the world top three for all of 2015 and 2016 and currently lies seventh is suffering a crisis. But we don't judge sports stars solely on what they achieve, we judge them on what they achieve relative to their potential. Should Roscommon or Monaghan reach this year's All-Ireland final and lose, that would be a monumental achievement. If Dublin did the same thing no one would be impressed.

Four years ago McIlroy showed he had the ability to become one of the greatest players in the history of golf and perhaps even challenge Nicklaus and Woods at the summit. So while 2015 brought a victory in the World Matchplay and 2016 one in the PGA Tour Championship, the lack of a Major made them slightly disappointing by the very highest standards. Last year was disappointing by any standards, an injury-hampered McIlroy failing to win a single tournament for the first time since his second year as a professional, in 2008.

That's something he's already remedied this year and it's that victory a fortnight ago in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, in particular the final-round 64 which blew away the opposition, which suggests 2018 might see McIlroy return to his very best. He is many people's pick to win the Masters which begins on Thursday and it is the only Major to have eluded him so far.

Given that McIlroy is 28 you can hardly say that time is running out for him. But it's passing all the same. By the time Woods was 28 he'd won eight Majors. And McIlroy has been succeeded as tour wunderkind by a number of young and prodigiously talented rivals. There's Jordan Spieth who has three Majors and is just 24. Another 24-year-old, Justin Thomas, won last year's PGA Championship, topped the money list and is the game's new sensation. Spain's Jon Rahm is younger still at 23 and is currently number three in the world.

Never have there been so many world-class youngsters. Last year's US Open winner Brooks Koepka is younger than McIlroy, as are the English duo of Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrell Hatton, lurking just outside the world top ten and probably just one Major victory from joining the game's elite. Xander Schauffele became the first rookie to win the Tour Championship last year and is only 24.

Could tomorrow belong to them? They've certainly changed the golfing landscape. When McIlroy won that PGA championship in 2014, Thomas was on the satellite tour, Rahm was playing college golf for Arizona State and Schauffele had just won the Californian amateur championship. These hugely talented and hungry young men probably don't believe that the number of Majors McIlroy wins is up to him alone.

One of the saddest sentences in fiction is the penultimate one from Charles Portis's great True Grit, "Time just gets away from us". It's sad because it's true and it applies to great sportsmen as much as the rest of us. We don't think of golf as a young man's game, but most of its finest players get their best work done in the first half of their careers. Severiano Ballesteros had his five Majors won by the age of 31, six of Arnold Palmer's seven came by the time he was 33, as did four of Lee Trevino's six, Tom Watson had won his eight before his 34th birthday.

Even Jack Nicklaus, that epitome of competitive longevity, had amassed 14 of his record 18 by the time he was 35. With every fallow year the window for McIlroy maximising his potential gets a little smaller.

Yet it's entirely possible that he can recapture the form of 2014. We tend to think of Tiger Woods as an all-conquering force in his pomp. Yet after the 2000-2002 glory years, where he won six of the 12 Majors, Woods drew a blank in 2003 and 2004, briefly losing his number one ranking to Vijay Singh. There were even suggestions that his day was done, but he bounced back to win two Majors in each of 2005 and 2006. McIlroy has the talent to do something similar.

Speaking of Tiger, for the first time in several years he will be entering a Major as a genuine contender, a storyline as interesting to the general sporting public as the travails of McIlroy et al are to the golf fan. When, two and a half weeks ago, Woods had a long putt to force a play-off at the Valspar Championship, the interest generated reminded you that he is one of those rare players who transcends his sport.

People who don't know who Dustin Johnson is, let alone that he's world number one, worship Tiger in the same way that people who couldn't tell Ken Norton from Jimmy Young loved Muhammad Ali. Woods missed that putt, but second place was his best finish since 2013. The fifth place which followed in the Arnold Palmer Invitational suggested it was no fluke.

Could he win in Augusta? If he did it would probably rank as the greatest comeback victory in the history of sport, rivalling Ali's recapture of the world heavyweight title in Kinshasa after a seven-year gap. The moralists among us would like to suggest that Woods has never been the same since the personal scandals of 2009, but he actually recovered from those to regain his world number one slot in 2013 and still held it as recently as May 2014.

It is the back operations which seemed to do for Tiger and his decline in the last four years has been precipitous. The drink driving arrest in May of last year and the sorry looking mugshots which accompanied it seemed to show a man on the road to ruin. You felt that the next time Woods trended on Twitter the news would not be good.

Now here he is, almost miraculously it seems, once more attracting attention for his golf. All the same, his chances of surpassing Nicklaus have almost certainly gone. Time has got away from Tiger too. He is 42, an age when not many golfers win Majors. Yet there have been exceptions, Nicklaus at 46 in the Masters, Hale Irwin at 45 in the US Open, Trevino at 44 in the PGA. If Tiger could emulate them, and have one more glory day, it might well prove to be the most memorable victory in the history of golf.

Woods is not the only player enjoying a renaissance at the moment. Bubba Watson, Masters winner in 2012 and 2014, slumped from tenth to 89th in the world rankings last year, but his win in last week's World Matchplay strikes an ominous note. Phil Mickelson's play-off win over Justin Thomas in the WGC Mexico Championship was his first tournament win in five years. Could he, at 47, become the oldest Masters champion of all time?

All the young dudes have the potential to get into contention. Or perhaps Rickie Fowler, after six top-five Major finishes in the last four years, can finally break through. Then there's Justin Rose, Jason Day, Paul Casey and of course Dustin Johnson, a not particularly charismatic world leader but a very efficient one.

My money is on Rory but my heart is with Tiger. What a week lies ahead of us. This is one sporting event which needs no hype at all.

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