Rory McIlroy has announced his return to The Open Championship by throwing down the gauntlet to his major rivals by declaring he is ready to spring back to top form.
The Irishman, 27, has not been in the winners’ circle at a major since he won The Open and US PGA championships back-to-back during his glorious summer of 2014.
In that time he has seen Jordan Spieth and then Jason Day replace him as world number one, both the American and Australian enjoying major-winning purple patches while Dustin Johnson has also gatecrashed the party with his US Open victory at Oakmont last month to turn golf’s new ‘big three’ into a big four.
It has led to suggestions by some in the media that McIlroy’s — who has now slipped to number four in the world behind Day, Johnson, and Spieth — place among the game’s highest echelons was at risk, with one respected commentator suggesting he was in danger of becoming the quartet’s “Ringo”, a reference to the supposedly inferior Beatle.
Of the Ringo analogy, McIlroy, whose single victory of the season to date came in May’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at the K Club, said: “I haven’t heard that. It is probably the first time I’ve been compared to the Beatles.”
Yet as he returned to the Open having missed his defence of the Claret Jug 12 months ago at St Andrews following an ankle injury, he reminded his fellow big guns just exactly who has won most majors.
“Those guys are having a great run at the minute. I feel like my game has been quite consistent apart from 2013, where I didn’t play that well and it’s probably the only time in the last six years I’ve dropped outside the Top 10 in the world.
“But I mean, I’m happy where my game is. I can’t worry about other guys. If I focus on myself and make sure that I’m playing the best that I can, I’m pretty confident that if I go out and play my best golf I’m going to win more times than not.
“I’ve got four major championships, and I’d love to add to that tally, just as those guys would love to add to their one or two they have, and just keep going.”
On a day when he questioned golf’s place in the Olympics, saying he would probably not even watch an event he had withdrawn from three weeks ago, and then insisted he did not get into the sport to grow the game but for more selfish reasons, the swipe at Spieth, Day, and Johnson’s “one or two” majors was relatively tame.
Yet it gave an indication that McIlroy still believes he is golf’s main man, despite what others may think.
Now his task is to prove it once more by adding to his quartet of major titles, something he has not come close to achieving since that double success two summers ago. The Holywood star has claimed two top-10 finishes at the Masters and another in the 2015 US Open but he missed the cut at last month’s renewal when Johnson joined the club at Oakmont.
“Winning majors is not easy. It’s not just about turning up and playing and collecting a trophy. There is more that goes into it than that,” McIlroy said.
“Yeah, I would have believed it if someone said .... at the PGA Championship at Valhalla (in 2014), you won’t win one of your next five majors you play.
“I’d be like, yeah, well, sometimes it goes like that and it goes in cycles. It’s a very long career, so there’s plenty of time to try and rack up more major championships.
“If that means I have to go through a dry spell of two years, then so be it. But I feel like when I play my best golf... if I’m not the favourite, I’m one of the favourites. I’m pretty confident that if I do play my best golf, then there’s a good chance that I’ll end up coming out on top.”
To do that, McIlroy believes he has to regain his swagger with the driver and not the putter many observers feel is his major weakness.
“I’ve had two of my best putting weeks recently. I had my best putting week on the PGA Tour a few weeks ago at the Memorial, and I had one of my best putting weeks on the European Tour at the French Open the last time I played.
“I’ve seen enough positive things in my putting over the last few weeks to be encouraged going into this week.”
McIlroy said he was excited to be back after missing St Andrews a year ago and that the adjustments to his swing and grip he has been working on were bearing fruit at Royal Troon, where he yesterday completed his third round of 18 holes since last Thursday.
“I definitely think one of the criticisms I have on myself this year is maybe not being aggressive enough and committing and trusting myself.
“But I feel like with the things that I’m working on in my swing, hopefully that will get me to that point, and hopefully it’s this week where I start to trust myself more with my swing, and I trust the shots that I’m trying to hit and trust that more times than not, I can pull them off.”
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