Sunday 18 August 2019

Rory can't find an answer to the same old question

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy tees off the 1st during day two of The Open Championship 2019 at Royal Portrush Golf Club. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy tees off the 1st during day two of The Open Championship 2019 at Royal Portrush Golf Club. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

James Corrigan

Rory McIlroy and his wife, Erica, will move into their new Florida mansion tomorrow and on Tuesday he will fly to Tennessee to play in something called the World Golf Championship FedEx St Jude Invitational, a $10.25m event with no cut. The next Major is in nine months' time.

It would be tempting to suggest that McIlroy will soon forget the 148th Open Championship and, indeed, a Major year when for just the second time since his first as a pro in 2009 he failed to record a single top-five. And because of the Memphis venue of the forthcoming dollarfest, one might be minded to view McIlroy as back in the gracelands of PGA Tour life, where everything comes so easily.

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Except all that is overlooking something that will always be on his mind.

McIlroy so obviously cared about his missed cut in front of his home fans on Friday night. He cared too much.

There was some nonsense talked around the Portrush harbour in the midst of McIlroy's rollercoaster couple of days, which began with the turmoils of that 79 and closed with an emotional 65 to fight back to within one agonising shot of qualifying for the weekend.

Alan Simpson, the former BBC DJ and one of the town's most well-known residents, recounted how on Thursday evening a group of angry women had berated him for McIlroy's poor showing - "as if Rory did it on purpose". By Friday night, that sense of outrage had been replaced with sympathy that, with the mixture of liquor and "if onlys", predictability morphed into unconditional hero worship.

McIlroy, himself, called the first round "a blip", "from totally out of the blue", and that seemed to inspire his most committed admirers to look beyond the golfer to point the finger.

The R and A was surreally to blame for allowing the farce of that internal out-of-bounds on the first hole that caused their superstar's tournament-wrecking quadruple-bogey eight. One or two of his defenders even scolded the golfing gods for their latest batch of barbarity, instead of directing their ire at the individual ranked third in the world who missed an 18-inch putt in a fit of pique on the 16th.

That 79 was described as an "outlier" in one quarter, but this was the third time since 2017 that McIlroy had opened a Major with a 78 or worse. Does three out of 11 really constitute an "outlier"?

Particularly as a memory stirs of his last-but-one competitive appearance in Northern Ireland - the 2015 Irish Open in Royal County Down, where McIlroy began with an 80. Two years later at nearby Portstewart, he missed the cut by five shots.

Meanwhile, there were those taking a step back willing to analyse a trend in the career of a 30-year-old who won four Majors before he was 25 and none in the ensuing five years. As ever, nobody did so as eloquently or as honestly as Paul McGinley, the former Ryder Cup captain and long-time friend of McIlroy.

"We've seen so much of this from Rory McIlroy, particularly in Majors, where he gets himself out of contention and then he gets unburdened with expectation and runs through the field," McGinley said.

"Sometimes it results in him ending up in the top 10 and sometimes, like here, it results in a heroic performance where he just misses the cut. That's what he's trying to eradicate from his game, that ability to get out in the first place."

Of course, the issue is between the ears and not the shoulder blades. On the stats charts, this is one of McIlroy's best seasons. He leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained against the field off the tee, in strokes gained against the field from tee to green, in strokes gained against the field full-stop. Nobody has amassed more top-10s - 11 - and only Brooks Koepka has earned more money between the ropes this year. After one victory in the previous two years, McIlroy has won twice this year, including the Players, which they like to call the fifth Major but really it isn't.

In the Majors, themselves, McIlroy came 21st in the Masters, eighth in the US PGA and ninth in the US Open. On all three occasions he was not a factor at the business end.

McIlroy did finish tied second at last year's Open, but his total was doomed to fall short, while the one time in the five years that he has managed to get himself into the final group on the final day of a Major was at last year's Masters when the game excitedly declared "this is it, McIlroy is going to complete the grand slam". He shot a 74 to finish fifth, with playing partner Patrick Reed winning his first Major with a 71.

An all-too-familiar script; each time there seem to be mini-disasters that fatally derail his challenge. Granted, this 79 was a full-blown disaster, but as Northern Ireland had not hosted a Major in 68 years and as he shot a 61 at Portrush as a 16-year-old and as this was clearly the biggest event in which he had ever teed it up, it figures that the collapse would be more exaggerated and more dramatic. McGinley watched the lights go out and saw the same old movie.

"McIlroy's like the brightest kid in the class who has the tendency to daydream every now and then," he said. "When he performs at his best he doesn't daydream, but when he misses out - like he has done this week - it's usually two or three little pockets during the week where he falls asleep."

Because of this ridiculously compressed Major season there is three-quarters of a year left until Augusta, where he will again pitch up trying to join Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen in the pantheon.

By then, McIlroy could be world No 1, having banked the eye-watering cheque for winning the FedEx Play-offs next month. Except in the tournaments that define legacy, nothing will have changed. The questions will continue before he finds his way back over the line.


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