The hunger and ambition burns as strongly as ever for Rory McIlroy even if his prospects do not seem as bright as they did three years ago when he dominated the golfing universe.
It was July 2014 at Royal Liverpool that McIlroy got his hands on the Claret Jug as the R&A’s Champion Golfer of the year and a month after that when he lifted the Wanamaker Trophy as PGA Champion at Valhalla in Kentucky.
Yet he has not won a major championship since and questions about his desire to compete for golf’s greatest prizes, as well as his ability to manage an ongoing rib injury, are intensifying after a less than auspicious run-in to today’s opening round at the 146th Open.
Missed cuts in three of his last four starts at the US Open, Irish Open, and last week’s Scottish Open do not inspire confidence in the 28-year-old from Holywood and nor do the patterns being provided at golf’s elite end.
The trends in recent majors and the Open Championship over the last decade do not bode well for McIlroy. He is neither a potential first-time major winner as the last seven champions have been dating back to Jason Day at the 2015 PGA, nor an old stager, with eight of the last 10 Open winners having been aged 35 or over. Yet McIlroy proved one of the exceptions to the latter when he won the Claret Jug in 2014 aged 25 and he sees no reason why an experienced four-time major winner should not buck the former trend, even if he admitted yesterday that he was trying to manage his rib problem through to the end of the year, when he plans to properly rehab the issue that has made 2017 such a stop-start campaign.
“I certainly hope so,” McIlroy said yesterday of being able to break the sequence of first-time major winners. “You never know.
“Golf is in a place right now where you have so many players playing really well. And a lot of the guys that are playing really well haven’t won a major like, the likes of Jon Rahm or Justin Thomas or whoever it may be. But I think Birkdale, because we’re going back to a place where we’ve been before (in 2008), it’s not a course that’s new to anyone, I think that might make a little bit of a difference.
“I hope it’s me at the end of the week that’s standing on the 18th green and getting the Claret Jug. But sort of where golf is at the moment... the margins are so fine, and that’s why you’re finding all these guys so closely grouped together because it’s so hard to find that little 1% or 2% that separates you from the rest of the pack.”
The fact bookmakers’ have installed a less than convincing favourite at 14/1 in Jordan Spieth reflect those sentiments.
It is as wide-open and competitive a field as we have seen in many years on a course that ranks as many players’ favourite while offering one of the most challenging tests in the Open rotation.
“It tests all aspects of your game,” McIlroy said of the course he first played in 2005 at The Amateur Championship, a tournament won by Ireland’s Brian McElhinney. “You have to drive it well. You have to be smart.
“Everything sort of challenges every aspect of your game.”
The past few weeks since McIlroy returned from a second spell on the sidelines with that rib injury suggest he is finding several facets of his game a considerable challenge. Missed cuts at both Portstewart and last week’s Scottish Open highlighted poor wedge play while his putting continues to be a bugbear. However, McIlroy has arrived here confident he is on a positive track and that his putter is once again compliant.
“I’ve done a good bit of work on it. I feel like there’s a little more flow to my putting than there might have been a few weeks ago, just by trying to separate my technical thoughts on the golf course to doing my drills off it.
“But when I get on the course (it’s about) just really getting into trying to hole putts and not thinking too technically about it, and really focusing in on the target and being a little bit more reactive. I saw good signs with how I putted last week in Scotland.”
Like many playing Birkdale this week, McIlroy will use his driver sparingly, preferring instead to put a one-iron in his bag.
“I feel like this is a golf course where you can’t really take it on too much. You can’t cut it across corners. You can’t take on some of the angles or bunkers that are here.
“This golf course dictates to you how you play it. It’s so well bunkered, it’s so well designed. You’re going to see guys hitting it to the same spot and then hitting it from there to the green. It’s one of those courses that you know that if you go out here this week and shoot four 68s or 69s, you’re going to have a really good chance to win.
“That 1-iron will be hit a lot. I’m trying to put myself in position off the tee. And if you’re in the fairway most of the time, you can attack some of these flags.”
Of course we have become used to hearing pre-tournament positivity flow from the mouths of golfers only to revisit them post-first round and see them grasping for reasons why it all went so wrong. Yet according to Darren Clarke, who has played practice rounds with him this week, McIlroy is set to turn a corner and the man himself also likes his relatively long odds.
“Good time to back me, I think. 20/1? If I was a betting company and I saw my form over the past few weeks, you would say, yeah, that’s probably a fair enough price. But, again, all it takes is one week for those odds to go back to, I don’t know, 7/1, 8/ 1 at Quail Hollow (for next month’s PGA Championship).
“So as I say, good week to back me.”
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