“Ah, it’s only January,” says anyone who has ever attended an O’Byrne Cup, FBD League, Dr McKenna Cup or McGrath Cup game in arctic conditions looking to curb both optimism and pessimism for the upcoming season.
The “it’s only January” excuse can be applied to Rory McIlroy after he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at the Dubai Invitational but the annoyance is that we still see these often inexplicable errors in April, May, June and July, each error becoming more magnified as he enters his tenth season since his fourth and last major championship title.
Tommy Fleetwood upstaged his Ryder Cup teammate at the final hurdle on Sunday in Dubai Creek but there is no doubt that McIlroy should have won.
The back nine on Sunday was a summary of McIlroy’s career since lifting his last major title at the 2014 PGA Championship. Supreme brilliance undone by moments of madness.
McIlroy had the potential to coast to victory at a cakewalk which is obviously a great place to be in for his first week of the year but it’s these reoccurring mistakes that make it harder to tag it as “only January.”
The hook off the 72nd tee is McIlroy’s bad shot when he is under pressure and it has proven to be destructive every time. The hook first reared its ugly head at the 2019 Wells Fargo Championship where McIlroy pulled a 3-wood left off the 72nd tee box only for his caddie Harry Diamond to persuade him to take a drop from the hazard and he hung on to win moments later.
This time in Dubai, there was no way out as Fleetwood grasped the opportunity with both hands and holed a winning birdie.
When McIlroy shot that sensational 63 at the 2022 Masters there was a moment where a big finish down the stretch might have forced the issue on Scottie Scheffler. But his driving deserted him and he never kicked on. At last year’s US Open, needing to find the fairway on the par-5 14th, he dragged his drive left and eventually signed for a costly bogey as he lost out to Wyndham Clark.
McIlroy putted beautifully all week but that will get lost in translation with the bizarre three-putt from two-feet being his highlight of the week on the greens.
Again, another freak incident that in isolation can happen to anybody and will throughout the course of the season. But for Rory, it’s just another unforced error that he needs to eradicate from his game.
The Holywood clubman looked in cruise control after a blistering opening 62 on Thursday and seemed to be continuing in a similar vein on Friday before, out of nowhere, he chucked two balls in the water on the par-3 8th costing him a quadruple bogey seven and seeing his four shot lead evaporate in an instant.
It’s just another example of a bad habit the four-time major winner has developed over the last decade, carding big scores on holes virtually out of context.
But like he always seems to do, he responded from that with a birdie on the 10th, he responded from the three-putt on 14 with a 20-foot birdie on 15.
He’s an enigma and it’s his brilliance and his flaws that make him the most entertaining golfer to watch.
To say he bottled the Dubai Invitational isn’t true, he just didn’t show a killer instinct. Watching McIlroy down the stretch will forever be box office because as long as he is like this he will always give the opponent a chance.
Watching Ronnie O’Sullivan in the Masters Snooker final vs Ali Carter was a prime example of what McIlroy needs to be if he is to get back amongst the major championship elite.
O’Sullivan found himself 3-5 in arrears after the afternoon session, playing some cavalier, attacking snooker, very much throwing caution to the wind. He even lost the first frame of the evening session. But like in golf, like Tiger Woods was in his pomp, once Ronnie entered the trophy winning part of the match, the back nine in golf, he played a completely different style.
He played winning snooker.
He didn’t take on any aggressive safety shots, he didn’t attempt any ambitious double pots off cushions, he made no mistakes, he was clinical and he took his opponent to a place where they were going to have to go up a level to beat him.
Once the match was levelled at 7-7, Ronnie coasted away to a routine 10-7 victory. He gave Carter no chances. If McIlroy had a three-shot lead in a major on the back nine, you would fancy his nearest challenger to be able to attempt to land a punch.
McIlroy will still convert more often than not from similar positions none more so than last year’s Dubai Desert Classic where he brilliantly held off Patrick Reed with a birdie, birdie finish to win.
But these are little chinks in the armour that make him so captivating to watch but also perhaps why he hasn’t won a major since 2014 and nobody can say with 100% confidence that he will finally win a fifth major this year.
Then again, it is only January eh?