In August 2015, shortly after Jason Day edged Jordan Spieth at Whistling Straits to land his first major title, Rory McIlroy took to twitter and sent out a congratulatory tweet. Nothing particularly unusual there, but it was the phrasing that struck me and has stuck with me ever since.
In the tweet, McIlroy claimed that two inevitable things had occurred that day. Day’s first major, and Spieth’s ascension to world number one at McIlroy’s expense. Just a year previous, in near darkness, McIlroy had captured his second successive major – his fourth in total – and third successive win at Valhalla and had cemented his place as the premier player in the game.
Though Spieth’s meteoric rise overlapped with McIlroy’s broken ankle and a missed portion of the season, I felt there was a defeatist tone to his words. Maybe I was reading too much into it – then and now – which is a common mistake in the 140-character Twitter universe, but I felt that losing the top spot in the rankings is something that should’ve jarred somewhat, especially if you consider yourself to be the best player in the world.
But did Rory believe he was the best player in the world back then? Or for the next couple of years? Being one of the game’s brightest stars, we have the benefit of being regularly able to study McIlroy’s body language between and after shots. We’ve come to know the confident bounce in his stride, with his head held high and the steely look when he has the bit between his teeth. Sure, we saw it on occasion, but we saw plenty of negative body language as well.
The drooped shoulders, and head hung low became all too familiar sights, particularly as his struggles with the putter came to the fore. In spite of his talent – which was never in doubt – there was a part of me that wondered if we’d seen the best of Rory. If the crushing weight of expectation had extracted all joy from the game and left us a broken shell.
Last season changed all that. The McIlroy we’ve seen over the past 14 months has been a completely different animal, even if tournaments haven’t always panned out in Rory’s favour for one reason or another. Okay, his ability to turn contention into victory pales in comparison to that of Tiger Woods, but his level of consistency is the closest we’ve seen since peak Tiger.
Since the start of 2019, Rory has teed it up in 26 different events, and finished in the top-10 on 20 occasions. It’s tempting to start worrying that the poor showing on the closing stretch at Riviera – following on from a similar Sunday display at Torrey Pines – suggests that the final round hex has returned, but it’s worth remembering that Rory’s only win on the West Coast came at the WGC Matchplay in San Francisco back in 2015.
The glass half-full approach is that once again, he has managed to put himself in contention on greens that are clearly his least favourable. He’s regained the top spot in the world rankings and is set to the return to the East Coast where he has eight wins spread through the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.
“You win or you learn” has been a mantra that the 30-year-old has been quick to espouse in recent times, and if there is any truth to that, then it’s a superior McIlroy that we’ll see in Mexico this week, with the disappointment of Riviera barely visible in the rear-view mirror.
The only inevitability I envisage in the near future is Rory’s impressive streak continuing and his advantage at the top of the world rankings widening.
And a win is coming very soon.