“Rory has an intuitive understanding of power. How to earn it, how to wield it, and how to keep others from taking it away. Like Tiger, he also learned to sniff out weakness at a young age, and to conceal his own. It’s too bad that the “Shark” nickname was wasted on Greg Norman, because Tiger and Rory are the ones who can truly smell blood.”
Shane Ryan / Slaying the Tiger
Written in the months following McIlroy’s two-major haul in 2014, it was hard to argue with Ryan. Keeping Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler at arm’s length at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, the final round may not have been vintage McIlroy, but it was all that was required.
Two weeks later, at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, McIlroy entered the final round in second place, three shots behind Garcia once more. Though good friends off the course, Rory had no trouble figuratively putting his foot on Garcia’s throat early on, turning the three-stroke deficit into a one-stroke lead after three holes and never allowing Garcia regain parity.
Just a week later, the new world number one was in the final group again at the PGA Championship at Valhalla, and it was here that Ryan’s portrayal of McIlroy as the ruthless finisher was forged. Though paired with Bernd Wiesberger, it was Fowler and Mickelson in the group ahead who would lay down the challenge. After a sloppy start, McIlroy had been overtaken by Fowler and was tied with Mickelson as he reached the sixth tee to find a backlog and the pair in front waiting on the tee box. As Mickelson and Fowler talked and joked, and were joined by Wiesberger and McIlroy’s caddie J.P. Fitzgerald, Rory stood apart, silently staring into space.
Later, speaking with Paul Kimmage for a Sunday Independent article, McIlroy remembered the incident. “It’s not a time to be talking about golf courses you’ve played or… well, for me anyway. I’m in my own space, and I want my own thoughts, and Rickie and Phil doing their old fist-bumping thing gave me a bit more of an edge.” Although he eventually bogeyed the sixth, McIlroy managed to channel that rage and played the remaining holes in five-under, breaking the resolve of Fowler and Mickelson in the process.
Six weeks later, McIlroy crushed Fowler for a third time that summer with a convincing 5&4 win in the singles in the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. Given that he counts Fowler as a close friend, the competitive instincts of the four-time major winner throughout this series make it easy to see why Shane Ryan focused on Rory’s taste for blood. But that was then and this is now.
Since the beginning of 2016, McIlroy has been in the final group on Sunday seven times. Six times he has failed to get the job done, with his triumph at the K-Club in 2016 the outlier in the group.
It is hard to be too critical of failure to overturn a three-shot deficit to one of the top players in the game, such as was the case with Patrick Reed at Augusta and with Justin Thomas at Firestone, however, it was the lack of a sustained challenge that is the biggest cause for concern on those occasions.
Outside those, there was the final round 74 when holding a three stroke lead over Adam Scott at Doral in 2016, the playoff defeat to Graeme Storm at the South African Open last year, the back nine debacle v Haotong Li at the Dubai Desert Classic this year, and the too little, too late charge against Francesco Molinari at Wentworth just a few weeks ago.
As is always the case with McIlroy, four years on from his exploits at Valhalla, he could deliver with aplomb this week, and look every bit the stone-cold killer of 2014.
But for now, the shark is looking more like a bloodhound under water.