Rory McIlroy’s last Major success, the 2014 USPGA
IF, as he searches for a little of his misplaced genius, he requires shelter from any showers of disquiet, Rory McIlroy can take refuge in golf’s most gilded biography.
It is the one that reveals the life story of Jack Nicklaus and it should ease any zephyr of doubt fanning through the dogwoods as McIlroy drives up Magnolia Lane.
Almost three years have ebbed away since the Irishman, his eyes burning in the manner of vintage-era Tiger, conquered Valhalla to claim the title deeds to a fourth major title.
Masterful as a god on that August day in 2014 at the PGA, reshaping the golfing cosmos, few could
imagine that 32 months on,
McIlroy would still be awaiting major number five.
Or that the career Grand Slam – a nugget claimed by just a quintet of players in the game’s long history – which seemed like his birthright would still elude the great
It would be to mangle truth with a graphite-shafted three-iron to suggest McIlroy is in a killing slump, or to say his days as king of the world might be remotely time-expired.
Only last September, he won $11.5m in a blaze of virtuosity, a Tour Championship final-round 64 sealing the dizzying financial windfall that accompanies the
Fed Ex Cup.
Briefly, he could shout out that he was again top of the world.
What is undeniable, though, is that against the yardstick by which true golfing immortality is measured, Rory has come up a distance short since lifting the Wanamaker Trophy in 2014.
Since that second PGA title, the 27-year-old is zero-for-seven in majors (he missed the 2015 Open Championship through injury).
It is a brutal, pitiless statistic that brooks no arguments and, deep down, must plant some small seed of apprehension in McIlroy’s mind.
Imagine how it would be if Lionel Messi went seven years without a Champions League, if Jim Gavin or Brian Cody endured that many Septembers without an All-Ireland.
McIlroy’s status as the player who sends the greatest charge through the galleries – the one he inherited from The Tiger – has been ceded, for now, to Dustin Johnson (above).
The loose-limbed Carolina gunslinger, winner of his last three tournaments, a par-five yardage clear in the world rankings, has turned the fairways into his own private diamond mine.
Since mid-February DJ has banked $4.5m. His coach Butch Harmon calls the freakishly athletic American who can, effortlessly, slam-dunk a basketball, the “total package”.
Padraig Harrington, who will be working as a Sky commentator this week, has an even more ominous soundbite: “If Dustin does turn up and perform, he’ll be the winner.”
Johnson has seized and altered the cloak of invincibility, for so long worn by McIlroy, to his 6’3” frame.
Rory sits 43rd on the Fed Ex ratings, with injury having restricted him to just 14 competitive rounds in 2017.
Last week as Johnson completed his hat-trick at the WGC Matchplay, McIlroy found himself evicted from the tournament by the journeyman Dane, Soren Kjeldsen.
Rory, like Woods before him, has spun his thoughts on his Masters prospects as masterfully as if they were a sleeve of ProV1s being wedged into a practice green.
“Every time I’ve played this year, I’ve played well”…“the injury has given me a chance to work on my short game”… “Freshness can help me mentally”…“I can’t see a downside to not having played as much as I’d like to”.
Yet the player who famously endured a back nine meltdown at Augusta in 2011 even as they were tailoring the green jacket to his measurements, is surely buffeted by doubts.
Nowhere tests a player’s short game as acutely as Augusta: McIlroy, though he remains a wonder of the world with the driver, is 112th on the PGA putting rankings.
On five-foot putts, he ranks 183rd; from ten feet, 132nd; between ten and 15, 189th.
Here is a reminder of the self-inflicted wounds on Masters Saturday a year ago when the bottom of the cup might have been the hidden city of Atlantis, so elusive was it to Rory.
His challenge, then, perished on the greens.
Then, of course, ahead of the only major he has not won, the prize he must covets, there is that nuclear meltdown six years on: Black Sunday.
A back-nine that seemed certain to be a glorious lap of honour for McIlroy was transformed into the saddest lament as his sat-nav grotesquely malfunctioned around Amen Corner.
The shock of that recollection hauls McIlroy from the cocoon of positivity in which elite athletes house themselves and something closer to his unadorned thoughts spill out.
“I still get asked about 2011”…“this is the biggest tournament of the year for me”…“with each and every year that passes, winning here will become more difficult for me.”
Dissect that last statement, place it in a Petri dish, under a microscope and the bacteria of doubt becomes visible.
Jack Nicklaus with his wife Barbara after he win the 1970 British Open
Which is where the story of Nicklaus may be an antibiotic against whatever pathogens have invaded McIlroy’s psyche.
In 1970, aged just 30, Jack, too, had endured three years without a major title; his father had died, his weight had ballooned, his genius it seemed was beginning to ebb.
He arrived in St Andrews for the Open Championship having finished 47th at the US Open, the twelfth-consecutive dud bullet he had fired as a major championship.
But Nicklaus found a way to win at the Old Course; he would claim a further ten majors, bringing his career total to an incomparable 18.
Nicklaus has been a frequent mentor to McIlroy; ahead of Thursday, the Golden Bear could do the younger man some service by reminding him of his own barren spell.
And of the flood of fortune which followed its ending.
It would be a gentle reminder that, yes, the game can withdraw its favours, but, for the greatest players, it often proves a temporary separation rather than a final divorce.
Right now such a tale surely would feel like an albatross on the fairways of McIlroy’s mind.
Armed with the silver bullet of such a mental triumph, who is to say what Rory might shoot amid the dogwoods and azaleas of golf’s most storied cathedral?