Rory McIlroy has worn many labels of late. World number 1, best ball hitter on the planet, FedEx Cup winner, loyal leader in golf’s civil war. But the one he desperately wants the most, the great champion, still eludes him.
It’s been nine years since McIlroy blasted his way to a fourth major title in 40 months by winning the PGA of America All-Time Grand Winners.
Sure, you would have had to be the biggest of Rory believers to genuinely think he could equal Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 or Tiger Woods’ then-14 (later 15), but certainly joining Ben Hogan and Gary Player in the fourth in nine, or even catching Walter Hagen’s 11 felt, if not inevitable, then at least very possible.
Instead, an inexplicable drought began, and nearly a decade later, he’s still stuck at four and his failure to break the line at the four biggest tournaments of the year has definitely become “a thing.”
The Northern Irishman has repeatedly won everything there is to win and has accomplished everything there is to achieve in golf, but the big leagues have been nothing but disappointment and often utter heartbreak.
However, he enters this year’s Open Championship with his best chance yet. He returns to a course, Royal Liverpool, where he won the Open in 2014 with a brilliant tee-to-green display and is coming off the back of a victory at the Scottish Open last week, his third win of the season. That triumph came after he birdied the 17th and 18th on Sunday in the most treacherous conditions with as good a display of links golf as will ever be seen, to wrest the title by one shot from local favorite Bob MacIntyre.
McIlroy also believes he’s finally hit on a formula for success in the majors. Like he did at the US Open (where he finished second to Wyndham Clark), he opted to skip his pre-match press conference to avoid incessant questions about LIV Golf and the great drought consuming him.
“I’m trying to keep it as simple as possible, forget all the noise, forget everything else and just go out there and have fun,” McIlroy insisted.
“I couldn’t ask for better preparation. The way I played the last two holes [in Scotland] It was an amazing ending and a perfect way to start this week.
“I had a great nine years and won a lot of tournaments, but the big four eluded me. I hope this week that’s something that can change.”
It sounds simple enough, although the last nine years have shown that overcoming the line is anything but.
Last year’s Open was a case in point, where he looked in a position to claim his second Claret Jug, but couldn’t putt all day on Sunday, and saw Cameron Smith roar past to become the Champion of Golf. of the year.
At last month’s US Open, the putter cooled again over the last 18 holes, and his wedge play failed to create any birdies as the unknown Wyndham Clark edged out the Brit in a shock victory.
And six-time Grand Slam champion Sir Nick Faldo has no illusions about what McIlroy has to do at Hoylake this week.
“I was doing television [for the US Open] and the number of times i would say this must be so demoralizing. Hits him 320 yards [off the tee] and then he wedges it at 60 feet and three-putts it,” Faldo explained. “That’s so killer for a pro. If he avoids that, if his bad wedge was 20 feet, then you’re laughing.
“Nine years is a long time, not many players go through nine years [between major wins] but he is very talented. Not that his game has gone downhill. If you can find a way to almost hit the reset button, you’re still in your prime; you just have to find a little confidence and determination.
“I have a kind of good vibe. I think I could get another one. I think he has a lot of chances.”
McIlroy will have no shortage of big names to beat on Merseyside. Smith will be desperate to become the first man since Padraig Harrington in 2008 to defend his open title, while Scottie Scheffler has been so much better than everyone else from tee to green this year than if he can even putt at an average level of field, he will surely lift the Claret Jug. Elsewhere, Jon Rahm’s link record is still a bit patchy, but he has the ability to blow everyone else’s minds.
Viktor Hovland is getting closer to his first major, Tommy Fleetwood’s local knowledge could prove decisive, and the field is stacked with other high-quality multiple major winners like Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and one Brooks Koepka, who could easily show your class and add to your accounts.
McIlroy has had “a great opportunity” many times before, but perhaps the stars are finally aligning and he can use that forgotten “great champion” label once again.