Much like Bill Murray used to wake up at 6am in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania only to discover that it was GroundHog Day, morning after morning, I enter another major tournament as a tortured Rory McIlroy fan wondering if this Sunday will be the one where the 33-year old adds to his long-time tally of 4.
It’s hard to believe it’s been eight years and counting since McIlroy’s last Major win. Put it this way, if Biff Tannen handed me a Sports Almanac in 2014 promising the major results right up to 2022 and McIlroy’s name wasn’t in it, I would’ve told him to keep it.
Back then it would’ve been inconceivable to think a swing so fluid, belonging to an already four-time major winner, wouldn’t threaten a double-digit major haul, never mind just one more in the interim.
And I realise how presumptuous that sounds, as if winning majors is an easy thing to do. But for a time, winning Majors did come easy to McIlroy, and it’s hard to identify exactly what changed since.
People point to his Nike deal of 2013 reported to be worth $200million over 10 years and say he took his eye off the ball; that with all that money raining in, McIlroy no longer had an incentive to put in the work.
And hell, if I was in my mid-twenties with unlimited money to spend, I’d probably struggle to stay dedicated to the day job too, but I’d sooner go with my own theory when it comes to McIlroy’s major demise. And as ever in golf, when in doubt, I blame Patrick Reed.
I’ll never forget the McIlroy and Reed singles showdown at the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine. It was a legendary back and forth, packed with drama, guile and grit. For every McIlroy blow landed, Reed had an answer, the pair of them golfing the face off each other for 8 electrifying holes without an inch of love-lost, until McIlroy showed his appreciation for an unlikely Reed half by fist-pumping the American by the eighth green.
If that duel was a staring contest, then McIlroy blinked first, and Reed’s had his number ever since.
It might sound ridiculous, and it is of course, but I only watched this duel the other day on repeat on Sky and whatever fight McIlroy had left whittled out of him after that ill-advised act of mercy. Would Tiger in his pomp have fist-bumped a rival in the same position? Would he f***. He would’ve avoided all eye contact whilst picturing how he was going to make Reed pay in the most gruesome fashion possible for the next ten holes.
Whether or not Patrick Reed robbed Rory McIlroy of his magical powers with that fist-pump or not, perhaps you can leave such wild theories to me, but like any good fan, I’ve stood by McIlroy in the intervening years. It certainly hasn’t been unwavering belief. Perhaps it’s been blind loyalty. It certainly was at Portrush when I stared Rory in the eyes and thought I’d never seen a man so comfortable in his surroundings than Rory was in the lead up to the tournament.
Back on home soil, and on a course where he honed his craft as a prodigious youth, it was Rory by how many for me. I made my way to the first tee to see him off that Thursday and sure enough, if he didn’t duck hook his tee shot OB. I’ve never heard a gallery go from roars of approval to deathly silence as quick, as if the good Lord himself had somehow plugged the place out.
So yeah, he’s fooled me on occasion. And as my go to George W Bush quote says, “fool me once, shame on… shame on you. … Fool me, you can’t get fooled again.”
Well I’m sorry Mr President but try as I might to resist the lure of McIlroy this week, I can’t help but have a nibble after what I saw last month at Augusta.
He doesn’t have me hook, line and sinker like times past but Southern Hills is set up for McIlroy to contend and I think he will. Why? Because unlike many people painting McIlroy’s Masters runner-up finish as nothing more than a patented top-10 with the handbrake off, I’m viewing it as a turning point because of on one defining shot.
And I know what you’re thinking, ‘John, you can’t base his chances on one bloody shot’ but is it not one shot that keeps us all coming back to the game with unbridled self-belief time and time again? Sure, I could take a more critical stand. After all, it was McIlroy himself who said he only felt he had a chance of winning the Masters after eagling 13 and he missed every tee shot thereafter, but I’d sooner focus on that 64th shot, the miraculous bunker recovery that might just change it all.
Without it, McIlroy could’ve conceivably failed to get up and down and fizzled out for a final round 66. Now that would’ve been the same old story. But I’m going with the narrative that he still thought he had a chance playing the 72nd hole to post a score that would give Scheffler something to think about, and with that in mind, he made a play under the gun that he hasn’t managed to pull off at a Major championship for the best part of a decade.
The proof will be in pudding this week as to how big a difference that shot made to McIlroy’s all-round self-belief but I can’t help but think it was significant. After so many years of talking up his Major chances, McIlroy finally had hard evidence that his game can still contend for golf’s biggest prizes.
So I’m on board for a big McIlroy run at the Wanamaker Trophy. I’m not saying he’ll definitely win, but I think he’ll be close. Anything that falls short of that and I fear I’ll find myself asking the same old questions. Worse still, I’ll be left thinking that I should’ve listened to George W Bush. And who’d want that?
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