Rory McIlroy focused on getting back to the top

One couldn’t blame Rory McIlroy if he were to suggest that professional golf adopt something that is the rage with the sport of American football — the concussion protocol. 

So long as it tests for amnesia, that is, because in 2015 a whole lot of people in golf seemed to forget an awful lot.

The storyline that stole the spotlight and swept to the forefront of the sport was a youngster named Jordan Spieth.

He won the hearts of fans with his youthful exuberance and remarkable success.

The wins in the first two majors of the season, the Masters and U.S. Open?

No one had pulled that off since Tiger Woods in 2002 and those who had also done it were icons such as Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus, so there’s no denying that Spieth had stepped into another stratosphere.

But it was only months earlier that McIlroy had closed out 2014 with rousing victories in the Open Championship and the PGA Championship.

Two straight major wins. Had folks forgotten?

All this hoopla over Spieth at 22 winning five PGA Tour tournaments, coming agonisingly close to the improbable Grand Slam, and ascending to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking?

Celebrate it, for sure, but digest this: Shortly after turning 22, McIlroy steam-rolled the world’s best players to win the 2011 US Open, and at 23 he won four PGA Tour tournaments, one European Tour event, added his second major, and got to No. 1 on four different occasions.

Oh, and while Spieth was having this monster 2015 season, McIlroy wasn’t exactly serving up stale bread and cold soup. 

He won two PGA Tour events, including his second World Golf Championship, added a pair of European Tour wins, outclassed his competitors for a third Race to Dubai title in four seasons, and might have been robbed of a campaign as massive as Spieth’s by pure happenstance; an ankle injury prevented him from a title defence at the Open and left him rusty and limping in defence of his PGA.

But that is the fickle nature of sports — and life — no?

Think how the unforeseen slip in a football game with friends went against McIlroy.

Now think about the series of events that could have ruined Spieth’s season, but didn’t. 

He hit an awful tee shot into the par-3 17th in Round 4 of the US Open, then compounded it with an untimely three-putt. 

The story from Chambers Bay was going to be how the kid coughed up the US Open with a double-bogey at the 71st hole, only Dustin Johnson at the 72nd hole inexplicably and carelessly three-putted from 12 feet to give the major right back to Spieth.

You cannot script this stuff. But you can pay heed to the theatre, savour the history, appreciate what has come before us, and maintain a level of perspective that serves all.

In other words, toss all the bouquets Spieth’s way, but just don’t expect McIlroy to stop and smell them when he barrels into 2016 riding a quest to regain what he rightfully believes is his.

He told ESPN earlier this fall: “We know how quickly (things) can change and I see it as my duty and responsibility to try and regain that top slot.”

He doesn’t need an app for that, either. 

He knows the route. 

In 2012, McIlroy began the season third in the Official World Golf Ranking, 2.559 points behind Luke Donald. Breaking from the gates with a second, a fifth, and a second, McIlroy won the Honda Classic in his next start and was No. 1. 

Two years later, McIlroy began the year ranked sixth, a whopping 5.1156 behind Tiger Woods. But McIlroy late in the summer ran off three straight wins — the Open Championship, the Bridgestone Invitational, the PGA — and was No. 1.

True, Woods was a shell of himself in 2014, but the point is, McIlroy knows how to jam things into overdrive. 

So, there is nothing about the present deficit in the world ranking — McIlroy a mere .6614 behind Spieth — that chases you away from the feeling that the kid from Northern Ireland is in great position to fulfill his “duty and responsibility.” 

The foibles in the McIlroy persona have been bared by now — the management changes and legal fights, the failed relationship with Carolina Wozniacki, the bogus toothache incident at the 2013 Honda Classic, the lack of tournament fight when it suits his mood (shockingly, he has missed nine cuts worldwide the last three years.

The guess is, also, that Spieth is not quite there and after playing 27 times in 2013-14 and 25 more times in 2014-15, he will agonise over which events to pare back on, even while branching out to accept big appearance fees globally.

Imagine, Spieth in 2015-16 might win a tournament, throw in a bunch of top 10s, play nicely in the majors, and not be satisfied.

Imagine, too, that it’s plausible to think Spieth might not win a major this year or next, that he might only win one or two more in his career. Despite what he showed in 2015, these things are not easy to win.

No such fear seems even remotely within the thought process of McIlroy, who clearly had recovered from his ankle injury. 

His win at the DP World Tour Championship made official what everyone already knew — that he was the European Tour’s best player.

Next up, making official what so many golf observers suspect — that for all the buzz about Spieth, McIlroy, and Jason Day being “the new Big Three,” it’s still the kid from Holywood who is the best.

McIlroy will be well rested when he commences the task Jan. 21-24 in Abu Dhabi and it will be the first of four tournaments in a 12-week span in which he and McIlroy will be entered at the same time.

The minuscule deficit that McIlroy faces in the OWGR, just .6614, could go quickly if he were to run off a torrid stretch, say a couple of early wins and some other top 10s. 

And good gracious, if he were to win at Augusta National in April, McIlroy would join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods as the only owners of the career Grand Slam.

It would certainly give folks cause to forget what Spieth did in 2014-15 — amnesia is contagious — but, of course, it’s December and so it’s nothing more than conjecture to get us through a winter stretch. 

What does resonate, however, is a snippet of McIlroy from the 2015 season where he showed a spirited mix of exuberance and playfulness.

His quarter-final match with Paul Casey at the WGC Match Play Championship having stretched into darkness, McIlroy had a dilemma. 

If he drove to his hotel in San Francisco, McIlroy ran the risk of missing the Manny Pacquiao - Floyd Mayweather fight. 

It made sense to watch it at the club, only someone needed to cover the cost of the pay-per-view.

“Take it out of my prize money,” McIlroy said, and so there he sat with his girlfriend (now his fiance), Erica Stoll, in the media center, surrounded by golf writers on deadline. He provided the boxes of pizza, too; the journalists offered space for McIlroy to kick back and just blend in.

For those of us who had seen him enter the game as a precocious teenager, it was a refreshing reminder that he still had a lot of kid in him.

Hours later, he proved he had a lot of determination in him; McIlroy concluded his win over Casey, beat Jim Furyk in the semis, and outplayed Gary Woodland, 4 and 2, in the final.

Impressive, McIlroy’s march through seven opponents to win it all, a performance he said had been fuelled by a look at the world ranking just one week earlier. 

Then No. 1, McIlroy saw how Jordan Spieth’s win at the Masters had cut into his lead and he was determined to protect it.

As 2016 approaches, McIlroy is just as focused on getting it back.


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