LIFE was sweeter than ice cream for Rory McIlroy in the first half of 2015. He was the reigning Open and US PGA champion, had finished a career-best fourth at the Masters and posted a Top 10 at a quirky US Open at Chambers Bay. He won the Dubai Desert Classic, WGC Match Play and Wells Fargo Championship – which included a course-record 61 – by late May. Form was not so temporary.
It seemed inevitable McIlroy would make a serious tilt at defending the Claret Jug at the Old Course at St Andrews, a venue he adores. Cue an extraordinary social media bulletin on July 6 confirming McIlroy had ruptured left ankle ligaments playing football. He has not played the game since. “And deliberately,” he says. “I don’t want to do that again. I pride myself on not making the same mistake twice. I have played other things but never football because that could happen.” He provides only half a smile.
Events on an artificial pitch in Holywood, Co Down, in the company of friends remain relevant. McIlroy has not won a major since that US PGA of 2014, when he was at the peak of his powers. Seven years on, he admits to a deeper impact caused by the injury than he has acknowledged.
“It certainly halted my momentum in the majors,” he says. “I did what I did in 2014. I finished fourth in the 2015 Masters where Jordan Spieth played great. I made a run at the US Open that year. So for four majors in a row, I won two and was close in the others.
“That sense of invincibility in the majors, the sense of giving myself chance after chance … I don’t want to say it disappeared but I used to turn up to majors and feel like I had a good chance. It’s a mindset thing, a confidence thing. Maybe my confidence was just dented a little bit from that episode.”
McIlroy will return to Augusta National to make an eighth attempt at completing a career grand slam. That the prospect of that epic achievement forms so little of the discussion around McIlroy suits him perfectly well.
“I could have won other Masters’ with 12 under par but in 2015 Jordan just played much better than everyone else and won by a few,” he says. “I always seem to play well when people don’t give me a chance. Lower expectations are a good thing.”
That sentiment is delivered with a glint in his eye and no wonder: expectancy has hovered around McIlroy since childhood and will never disappear. Through familiarity the Masters venue no longer fazes him.
“You all of a sudden realise that it’s just another place,” he says. “It’s just a golf club. The less you can make it a big deal is the best way to get the best out of yourself.” Rory McIlroy, Xander Schauffele and Jon Rahm look over their putts on the 13th green during the first round of the 2021 Masters.
As Zach Johnson was crowned 2015 Open champion, McIlroy was desperately trying to regain fitness. “When you are in these major championships it feels like it is the biggest thing in the world,” says the 32-year-old. “Being removed from it and going through rehab with my ankle made me realise people were just getting on with their lives. I had fresh perspective and a fresh appreciation from that.
“The world keeps on moving. I remember being in the gym on the Monday, the day that Open finished, scraping around to find a TV that even had it on.”
McIlroy is terrific at identifying moments in time. After the 9/11 atrocity – he was 12 – for around five years he would have dreams of planes taking off from the nearby Belfast City airport and crashing either into his family home or Holywood golf club. “I’ve never been a great flyer,” he says. “I’m better now, I fly all the time and it’s fine. But I’m much better when I have my family with me.
“I remember the day of 9/11 really clearly. I came home from school, that happened. I had a disciplinary meeting at Shandon Park golf club that night.” This requires further detail. “Oh, me and a few juniors took some golf buggies around.” The maddest thing he has ever done? “Certainly not.”
Fast forward to 26 September 2021. McIlroy is reduced to tears in the immediate aftermath of a Ryder Cup singles win over Xander Schauffele. Europe had been trounced by the US and McIlroy visibly toiled during days one and two. He was soon to back away from Pete Cowen, his coach for much of the year, and be reacquainted with his longtime tutor, Michael Bannon.
“I just went out there that Sunday to play golf, to be me, to be instinctive,” says McIlroy. “I played my best golf of the week. There was this realisation of ‘What have I been trying to do for six months?’ That’s where the emotion came from but I felt like I righted the ship after that.
“I was trying to be a better golfer by worrying too much about technique, which I had never done before. I thought that was going to get me to the ‘next level’ or whatever. I decided to be more instinctive, more athletic, to see shots and be visual.” The welcome return of the natural artist.
In the context of his peers, McIlroy has plenty to say. There would, however, be plenty more were he not conscious of straying into problematic territory. “I offer opinions on things within our game,” he says. “Going into current affairs is a lose-lose. You can’t win. That’s the reason the Olympic decision [choosing to represent Ireland] weighed so heavily on me because you cannot please everyone.
“If I know anything about myself it’s that I’m naturally a people-pleaser. It weighs on me if I am pissing people off. I don’t want people to not like me. You end up where it’s better saying nothing. I still feel like I am very reserved, I could say way more but I don’t. It’s also not my place, right? I am [only] a golfer at the end of the day.” But why is the domain of professional golf generally not as candid as McIlroy? “It’s a very conservative sport. It’s such a mental game as well that if you had an opinion and went against the popular one then with social media and everything you can be slaughtered for any kind of mistake. That weighs on your performance and people are scared of that.
“Mentality is so important out here. You have so much time between shots to think of all sorts of shit. It’s inevitable that stuff could get into your head and you could lose concentration.” McIlroy believes fatherhood has intensified his drive inside the ropes. That much was evident in Dubai this year, when the scale of his anger after blowing a glorious chance for another Desert Classic win was perfectly clear. “This is an outlet for me,” he says. “The person I am on the course and that competitive streak isn’t something I necessarily want to take home with me.”
In what has been a slow-burning 2022, it is reasonable to point out McIlroy’s play has not returned an appropriate level of results.
The notion that his wait for major win No 5 could ultimately render him the same as umpteen other players at the summit of the sport earns a swift rebuke. “I don’t think I’ll ever be ‘just another golfer,’” he says. “Four majors, 32 wins worldwide, a part of great Ryder Cups. I’m not just any other golfer. I’m a Hall of Famer. So I’m not worried about that.”
No sense at all, then, of what might have been; and still plenty of what may be to come.