Three wins, Fed Ex Cup champion, Race to Dubai champion, world number one. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tic… hmmm. No major title.
2022 was the year Rory McIlroy re-announced himself to the world in many respects. The previous year he looked lost, bewildered and disillusioned with the game of golf, feeling the feelings many thought he was immune to.
Fast forward twelve months and Rory looked back to being Rory as he rightfully returned to his world number one spot for the first time since July 2020 last October. The touch paper has been lit for another trophy-laden year, but it must include major championships.
Since winning his fourth major, the Holywood native has seventeen top-10 finishes in the big four events, the most of any player in that period. 2022 was the first time he finished inside the top-10 in all four majors in the one season. But there was a difference, he competed to win in them all.
Justin Rose, after his second win in three starts at the 2010 AT&T National, said;
“I feel as if I have had three different careers. The young kid, the journeyman and the player I wanted to be in the first place.”
It feels like McIlroy has had three different careers also.
There was the youngster coming out on tour, overpowering golf courses, winning all around him and doing things the majority of players could not do.
From 2014-2021, McIlroy fell back into the pack as a new, vibrant crop of young talent emerged onto the PGA Tour and suddenly they were winning majors in no time, hitting it further than him, closer than him and putting better than him.
The Jordan Spieth’s, Justin Thomas’s, Brooks Koepka’s, Collin Morikawa’s and Jon Rahm’s did not fear him.
Despite all the major top-10s up until 2022, he never really entered a Sunday with a realistic chance of winning other than the 2018 Masters where he was in the final group with Patrick Reed, chasing down a four-shot deficit. An isolated scenario during seven years of reversing into the top-10 until this year…
Now McIlroy enters 2023 a complete player. He has arguably never played better. He has completely turned around his game over the last twelve months and it seems inevitable that majors will follow.
He is in the third stage of his career, he is a world beater again like he was when he came onto the scene and won the 2011 US Open. The floodgates opened then and should do so now. The Major championship dam is ready to burst.
2014 was a career statement that this guy was the best player in the world by far after scooping three successive wins – The Open, WGC Bridgestone, PGA Championship – sweeping aside all who tried to stop him, even Father Time as darkness descended on Valhalla at the PGA, engulfing the 18th hole in a dense navy mist where McIlroy cut a silhouette in that awful looking Nike template shirt with a black torso and purple sleeves.
Maybe the famous fashionistas who have gone before us conspired with the golfing gods to put McIlroy through eight years of major championship heartache since…
It seems a lifetime ago that McIlroy lifted his fourth major title and many would have expected he would have doubled his tally by the time he stands on the first tee of the Dubai Desert Classic on Thursday – a tournament that has been so fruitful for him – and with at least one green jacket.
But that green jacket has continued to prove elusive as the door to the grand slam club and golfing immortality remains shut for the time being.
It could be argued that McIlroy has been unfortunate to win his four majors in quick succession, he has been burdened by them and the rapid success he had. Had he won the four majors in a prolonged spread would he be viewed differently?
Some say he has underachieved, believing he should have at least double his major tally. After all it was widely predicted he would notch ten in his career, the closest version of Tiger Woods to emerge.
Others say if he retired today he would do so with four major titles, a feat that should be heralded considering so many end their careers with none.
But Rory’s career will be defined by how many major championships he collects until he retires. His major career began to slide into hopeful nostalgia until last year when the belief and expectation returned to his game and fans alike.
Fuelled by his antipathy towards LIV, McIlroy captured the imagination in the major championships, unfortunately doing all but win. The Open championship would have stung the most, it was an opportunity to establish a legacy. Fifth major at the Home of Golf, level with Seve and surely about to embark on another major run.
At the time we wondered, could it prove the tonic, or it could prove consequential. Was that the chance?
The teary eyed McIlroy who left St Andrews that Sunday carried on his rich vein of form to claim back the world number one spot. Visibly emotional at the CJ Cup, it was clear he had regained his hunger, his motivation and his energy. One has to think that the LIV controversy has awoken the beast inside him again.
A fifth major championship looks closer than ever, evoking dreams of another glittering run of four majors where if you blink you’ll miss it.
Hype and expectation over McIlroy when he drives down Magnolia Lane had cooled since 2018, until that fabulous Sunday 64 last year. Now entering what is considered a golfer’s peak years, and with McIlroy seemingly better than ever, it will be fever pitch when he shows up at Augusta National.
Might he have to win one of the remaining three majors before he can don a green jacket? Maybe. But one thing is for certain, he needs to arrive at The Masters with the winning touch, having already beaten the best in the world – the elevated PGA Tour events will suit him in that regard.
2023 starts in Dubai. Will it end with Rory McIlroy left wondering? Or will the floodgates open for him again and perhaps pave the way for golfing immortality.