What a difference a day makes. Sunday two weeks ago at the Wells Fargo and Rory McIlroy rose from the ashes to claim an overdue PGA Tour win.
If he didn’t, McIlroy’s name would’ve been a long way from title consideration this week. It would’ve been reserved for flashbacks and highlight reels featuring the player who romped home by eight shots the last time the PGA came to Kiawah in 2012, spectators and commentators alike asking, where did it all go wrong, Rory?
But that was an alternate universe. On this fickle planet of ours, McIlroy won; his critics discarding the knives they’ve had out for the four-time Major winner as quickly as they sharpened them; replaced with a pedestal and pre-tournament favouritism for the second Major of the year.
A fair reflection of where McIlroy’s game is at? No. How could it be? It was only last month he was battling a two-way miss, falling short of the Masters cut and seeking a totally new direction. One tournament does not make a player, no more than the struggles preceding Quail Hollow never unravelled one.
Does that mean McIlroy won’t win this week? Of course it doesn’t – when at his best he’s capable of beating anyone, but therein lies the crux… McIlroy’s not at his best. Or at least he wasn’t when winning at Quail Hollow with his ‘C’ game, finding just three fairways that Sunday. A testament to his talent, sure, but far from the acid test that’s set to be provided this week at a 7,800-yard-plus, and windy Kiawah Island.
That’s not to say there isn’t hope, there’s lots of it. For one, McIlroy’s scrambling at Quail Hollow was off the charts. It was a grinding display not normally associated with his mercurial talents but one often credited to true champions, capable of winning without their best stuff.
Not only that but since winning he’s had two more weeks to work towards a Major returning to an Ocean Course venue that was the scene of perhaps his most impressive performance ever. Alongside swing coach Pete Cowen, the pair had said they were done looking back at past triumphs but the Ocean Course hasn’t changed all that much since McIlroy mastered it and although the Holywood man has evolved in that nine year window himself, he’s sure to still like what he sees back in South Carolina.
So I guess part of me can understand the favouritism. It’s not just a sentimental appointment. It’s a mark of respect for McIlroy. Course form coupled with the confidence only winning can bring, it makes sense that he’s a leading fancy for a big week, especially given those atop golf’s world order haven’t exactly been setting the world alight of late.
But this is a Major week. Quail Hollow wasn’t, and whether you like it or not, McIlroy’s career will be judged on Major wins, not regular Tour titles. The reality is that it’s been seven years and counting of McIlroy failing to deliver on golf’s biggest stage. The bookies believe this will be the week he cracks the code, but with that favourite’s tag comes added pressure; pressure the 2012 version of Rory took in his bouncing stride.
How the 2021 version he’s cultivating with the help of Cowen responds remains to be seen but the fact he has mind-guru Bob Rotella also in his corner is particularly interesting. There have been many occasions in that seven-year Major spell that McIlroy teed up in one of golf’s big four events occupying favouritism and swinging magnificently, but for one reason or another, was unable to get over the line. For all the world that reason looked to be a mental block. Those blasted six inches between the ears. A belief issue. The killer inside him gone AWOL.
McIlroy himself has often been quoted, when looking back at the rambunctious fairway frolicker he once was, lamenting his lost youth, wishing he could recapture the care-free, nerveless approach to his golf that made winning come easy and made McIlroy the game’s dominant force for a time. And it should come as no surprise that Dr. Bob not only latched onto such revelations, but used them as a starting point when getting to work with McIlroy.
“We’ve been working on the whole idea of closing tournaments,” Rotella said in an interview with The Times. “Guys can try so hard to win that it’s almost impossible. You have to get lost in your own little world and just play your game and I’m very into players getting back to being that young kid. You grow older and have advanced skills and advanced bodies, but can you still be the free kid who just loved to play golf?
“Guys like Rory loved golf as kids, but this sport tries to beat you up and convince you that you’re not as good as everyone said you were, or you thought you were. The win last week was potentially a great learning experience for him. There’s a lot of different ways to win and if you can convince yourself of that in the mind you won’t become one-dimensional.”
If Rotella can weave his magic and turn the clock back on McIlroy’s approach to the game, while Cowen continues to fine-tune his charge’s swing, then the 2021 version of McIlroy could be the most complete one yet. It’s a big ask, but also a truly exciting one. And hey, the bookies believe Rory can do it, and apparently they never lose, so who am I to argue?
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