NORTON, MA. When Rory McIlroy stepped off the 18th green at Vahalla in August of ’14 he had won his 4th major championship following-up with back-to-back efforts after having claimed The Open Championship just a month prior at Royal Liverpool. At that point the predictions for future successes were limitless. Then a 25-year-old looked to have a clear path in reaching double-digit majors and have his name in the same conversation with such heavyweights as Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. Fast forward to this week’s Dell Technologies event and the Northern Irishman is looking to finish the ’18 season with a flourish but there is one constant element still left hanging. McIlroy remains at having won four majors and despite winning the FedEx Cup back in ’16 there are a number of signs that the path to the upper reaches of golf stardom have stalled.
Consider that after McIlroy displayed a vintage performance in the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in winning his 14th PGA TOUR win the momentum he was looking to build has stalled. At this year’s Masters, McIlroy was in the final pairing with eventual winner Patrick Reed. A missed short putt at the par-5 2nd for eagle set a tone with McIlroy simply bobbling along to a closing two-over-par 74. What seemed like an ideal setting for Rory to join golf’s most elite club — career Grand Slam winners — showed a Rory still in search in reclaiming his position at the top of the golfing world.
Just a few weeks ago the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone McIlroy once again made the final pairing — this time with rival Justin Thomas — just three shots behind. Once again, McIlroy floundered in the final round — shooting a three-over-par 73 and finishing in a tie for 6th. McIlroy performed poorly at the PGA Championship at Bellerive with a tie for 50th after being in the hunt during the final round at Carnoustie at The Open Championship. Deciding to take a break McIlroy opted to forego playing in The Northern Trust event last week to refocus and get his game ready for the final three events of the FedEx Cup Playoffs and with the Ryder Cup lurking at the end of September.
“I just needed to have a couple of weeks off and sort of assess where I was at and what I needed to do improve and go forward,” said McIlroy. “So I worked with Michael Bannon down in Florida. We worked on a few things, sort of looking back at old video all the way back to when I was 16 and sort of what I’ve done well in my swing throughout the years.”
Denial of the obvious is something McIlroy was not going to do. McIlroy clearly has a path to regain his overall footing. He has won at TPC Boston twice previously and he capped a ’16 season in grand fashion eventually winning the FedEx Cup that year. Rory can also play a leading role with this year’s Ryder Cup matches and have Europe reclaim the advantage it lost to Team USA at Hazeltine in ’16.
The swing mechanics are a part of the McIlroy puzzle but the deeper issues rest more with his inconsistent wedge game and putter. There’s little question that McIlroy has the firepower — leading the statistics in driving distance. But, when Rory has been in position — as mentioned previously — the light has not been on and others have simple passed him.
The upside is that McIlroy remains positive. “Yeah, I feel like I made quite a bit of progress last week. It feels good, and it’s not as if we’re trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re just trying to go back to stuff I’ve done before.”
Rory turns 30 in ’18 and the promise of his 20’s will then be in his rear view mirror. There’s clearly enough time but this week at TPC / Boston is likely the needed platform he needs to regain his mojo not just for the conclusion of ’18 but in the years ahead. Rory’s story has plenty of chapters to include but the promise he showed when walking off that final hole at Vahalla is in need of a total rewrite — this week could very well serve as that opportunity.
We shall see.
*Photo Courtesy of Kristen Brault, K.Brault Photography