Four starts. Four top five finishes. Leading the tour in scoring average. More than 1.5 million dollars banked. Back to world number one. And drawing plaudits from far and wide for his condemnation of the Premier Golf League while voicing ethical concerns for the financial backing behind it.
It’s been a pretty good start to 2020 for Rory McIlroy, right?
I mean, under normal circumstances, it has, but this is Rory McIlroy, so normal rules don’t apply. There may be an unfair element to double standards, but Rory is a victim of his own success. Being such a constant feature at the top of the leaderboard, is it unfair to expect that he’d have edged over the line once this season?
Well, here’s where it gets tricky. Opening his year at Torrey Pines, Rory trailed Jon Rahm by three going into the final round and shot a closing 69 to finish tied for third. A monumental failure? No. A little disappointing? Yeah, absolutely. Three bogeys in his first four holes left him a mountain to climb, but he managed to give himself a glimmer of hope on the closing stretch. We could take the positives there.
Next up was Riviera where the new world number one had the chance to rubber stamp his ranking. This time, he was the 54-hole leader. Well, he had a piece of it at least. Adam Scott and Matt Kuchar sat alongside and this time, Rory was a strong favourite to get over the line. But he wasn’t odds on. The bookies were offering 6/4 on Rory closing the door, and bookmakers aren’t in the business of generosity.
So, again, was this a monumental failure? No, again it wasn’t. More than a little disappointing? Yes, most certainly. Only Harold Varner from the top 16 shot higher than Rory’s 73, which came on the back of three straight rounds in the 60s. Three bogeys in four holes undid McIlroy at Torrey, but it was a triple-bogey on one hole that did the damage at Riviera.
Next? Mexico, and Chapultepec for the WGC. Starting the final round on the same number as three-ball partners Jon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau, they trailed Patrick Reed and Erik Van Rooyen by three and Justin Thomas by four. Obviously the odds were considerable on Rory coming up trumps from this pack, but both DeChambeau and Rahm held at least a share of the lead during the round, and Rory again struggled to fire. His three-under 68 flattered his performance a little.
But these were all Poa Annua greens and though Rory has had a little success on Poa surfaces, the vast majority of ticks on his resume have come on bent or Bermuda grass greens. When you’re holing nothing of consequence in final rounds on Poa, then the bumpy putting surfaces can often be a convenient scapegoat.
And finally, last week at Bay Hill. Back on Bermuda grass and back in the penultimate group on Sunday. McIlroy, alongside Marc Leishman on the board, lay two strokes behind Tyrrell Hatton. Again he was priced as favourite, but again, he was odds against.
Should Rory have won? Perhaps. I mean, he’d have had to shoot under par, and conditions were extremely tough, but there were nine other players who did break par.
I think it would be harsh to be too critical of him for not winning, however, once again, it’s the manner of his defeat that’s the disconcerting factor. Of the last six groups on course, only three players shot higher than the world number one.
Yes, the wind played havoc, as it did all weekend. And yes, Rory is not a player who relishes heavy gusts, but that’s the nature of the game.
This time last year, McIlroy arrived at Sawgrass with a similar line of form, and serious questions were being asked of his ability to close. Four wins in the intervening twelve months have earned him the benefit of the doubt.
But with each Sunday misfire, those victories become more distant and the volume knob on that question gets turned a fraction higher.
And there’s only one sure-fire way to bat that question away. We know it, he knows it.
Time for the real world number one to step up.