Way before Rory McIlroy turned professional in 2007 at the age of 18, it was obvious he already had enough talent to challenge the very best golfers in the game, but an impatient McIlroy always wanted more, writes John McHenry.
He wanted to be recognised as the best golfer in the world, something he duly achieved on March 4, 2012, when he became the No1 ranked player.
A little shy of 10 years later, the affable McIlroy’s roll of honour includes a US Open (2011), two US PGA Championships (2012, 2014), and the Open (2014), but with his disappointing show once again at the US Open this week, it begs the question — have we already seen the best of this immensely talented golfer?
Recognising that form can come and go, even among the very best players in the game, McIlroy has added other layers to his personal life (marriage to Erica Stoll) as well as to his personal fortune, with his recently signed contract with equipment manufacturers Taylor Made (reputed to be in the region of $100m over 10 years).
That, however, will be of little consolation to him after his frankly very poor performance over the past couple of days.
On form, McIlroy is probably the most exciting golfer on the planet. Much like Arnold Palmer of old, he’s humble and he really engages with people — his complete golf game capable of growing the popularity of the sport in a way that others, like Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, and Jordan Spieth, simply can’t.
That said, McIlroy’s achilles heel at the moment is his inability to bring any real competitive form to the major championships. This year his preparations for the US Masters as well as the US Open were hampered by a rib injury — most probably sustained in the gym, contrary to other commentary.
Two years ago, it was the ruptured tendon he sustained while playing soccer. That injury forced him to miss two months of golf, including his Open title defence at St Andrews. He didn’t return until the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, and while he broke par all four days, once again he was largely uncompetitive, finishing 11 shots behind Jason Day.
As recently as late last year, the great Jack Nicklaus warned McIlroy that he needed to significantly improve his game if he hoped to dominate in a fashion that he himself did in his prime. While not specifically questioning his talent, Nicklaus felt he needed to stop ‘resting on his laurels’ and work a whole lot harder.
He also seemed to question his level of desire and commitment to be the greatest golfer to have ever played the game.
Strong words but Nicklaus, as the greatest major champion of all time, is well qualified to speak on the subject of major championships.
It also begs the question as to whether there is anyone else strong enough in McIlroy’s camp saying the same thing as one of the greatest golfers of all time.
Going back to Augusta National in 2011, when we all witnessed those sad images of McIlroy blowing a four-shot lead in the Masters over the final nine holes, we worried about the long-term impact it would have on his career. But now we know that McIlroy’s determination to learn and move on from it was probably the most influential step of his then short professional career.
McIlroy now faces a similar type question as he returns home this week.
Financially secure for life, how much is he prepared to learn from incidents like these past few years that have dogged his proper preparation for the titles he covets most — the majors? How much is he determined and prepared to sacrifice in order to realise his fullest potential in the game of golf?
At 28, he has the guts of 20 more competitive years ahead of him, but with the competition growing and, in Dustin Johnson’s case, moving even further ahead, he’s now got to fully focus on determining his future.
Golf is far the better off with an in-form Rory McIlroy competing, but as Rory has already experienced, neither golf nor his competitors will be hanging around while he makes up his mind.
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