For Rory McIlroy, it's been a decade of glory and anguish - PGA TOUR

13 May 2024
Rory McIlroy

PGA Championship returns to Valhalla, where he last won a major in 2014

Rory McIlroy won four majors in four years – 2011 U.S. Open, 2012 PGA Championship, 2014 Open Championship and PGA Championship. But there’s winning, and then there’s winning.

He won the first two by eight shots apiece, and the second two in a span of three weeks.

“This is Rory’s time,” The Guardian declared. “The dawning of a new era.”

McIlroy now heads into the PGA Championship at Valhalla with two victories in his last two starts – just as he did at the 2014 PGA at Valhalla, which is still his most recent major victory.

“Just need to try to replicate whatever I did in 2014, just try to do that all over again,” he said after going 8-under in a span of eight holes (Nos. 8-15) to pull away at Quail Hollow on Sunday. “Yeah, I'm feeling really good with my game.

Rory McIlroy charges to victory at Wells Fargo

“I need to stay in my own little world next week and not get too far ahead of myself,” he added, “but if you can step on to the first tee at Valhalla on Thursday and feel as good about my game as I did today, I think I'll have a good chance.”

McIlroy has 20 major championship top 10s over the last decade (the most in golf, by three) but no wins. Where has he gone wrong? As he prepares for this week’s PGA Championship, the punditry will turn up the volume on that question, comparing him to his 2014 self.

Back then, his 281-yard 3-wood to 7 feet and subsequent eagle at the 10th hole sparked a furious comeback. (He later said he started his second shot 15 yards left of his intended line and got lucky.) With a two-stroke lead and in fading light, McIlroy gave no high-fives on the way to the 18th tee, where he watched Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson in the group ahead tee off, then arranged for them to move off to the side once they were several paces down the fairway to allow McIlroy and Bernd Wiesberger to drive. As Nick Faldo noted on CBS, McIlroy was playing into the group ahead while also playing through the world of golf.

It was McIlroy’s third win in as many starts – and his second straight major. (He had won The Open Championship three weeks earlier.) All of a sudden, he had joined Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players to win four majors before turning 26. Steeped in the game’s history, McIlroy marveled at that, as well as being tied with Ernie Els and Raymond Floyd at four majors, one behind Seve Ballesteros and two behind Europe’s all-time leader, Faldo.

Confoundingly, that’s where McIlroy remains.

Rory McIlroy comments after winning the PGA Championship

Looking for his edge

Rory McIlroy is too nice to win majors.

If there’s a through line to the criticism of this generational talent, that would be it.

Aggression, killer instinct, edge – McIlroy hasn’t always loved these terms. Asked last summer about his “ruthlessness” at Valhalla in 2014, he replied: “I find being that way pretty exhausting in life in general, to be that ruthless and that – it's not as if I can't get into that mode, but I don't feel like I need to be that way to be successful on the golf course.”

And yet, by the time he sat down with PGATOUR.COM at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard earlier this season, McIlroy was rethinking that.

“Especially Valhalla, there was like a killer instinct there,” he said, “that I've maybe, you know, if I've been lacking … that I've been trying to tap into over the past couple of years.”

He seemed to be tapping it when asked last week about the pileup at the last at the 2014 PGA.

“Yeah, I'd say I'm a pretty, you know, non-confrontational person,” McIlroy said at the Wells Fargo last week. “I'm not a huge fan of conflict, but when push comes to shove, I will (engage). That was one of those times when I needed to sort of assert my will on a situation.”

Whether he was pushy or assertive, he was golf’s new IT player, and his scoring average in the majors from 2007 through 2014, 71.25, was second only to Woods (71.21).

The story of McIlroy in the majors since then, however, has been cover-your-eyes stuff. He has tried playing less, playing more, stoicism, long hair, short hair, being on the PGA TOUR Policy Board, and not being on it. He has watched himself winning majors and visualized his name atop leaderboards, as at the 2022 Open Championship.

“I'm only human,” he said after finishing third at that ’22 Open at St. Andrews, where he became the only player to hold the 54-hole lead at a major, hit every green in regulation in the final round, and not win. “I'm not a robot. Of course, you think about it, and you envision it, and you want to envision it.”

Rory McIlroy's clutch up-and-down from bunker at The Open

McIlroy has tried minimizing the stakes, reminding that it’s just golf. Conversely, he has allowed himself to vent, as he did after finishing T7 at last year’s PGA. There, in the locker room at Oak Hill, he said he lacked the firepower to pull away from fields and was considering an overhaul, all of it captured in the Netflix docuseries “Full Swing.” When Brooks Koepka won, a frustrated McIlroy no longer had the most majors among his peers.

Meanwhile, he has won everything else but a major. The only three-time FedExCup champion, he’s a 26-time TOUR winner, a five-time Race to Dubai winner (DP World Tour No. 1) and a 17-time winner on the DP World Tour. He has won THE PLAYERS Championship, the Ryder Cup and been world No. 1. (He’s now No. 2, well back of Scottie Scheffler.)

Last month, McIlroy returned to a simpler and more joyful time as he and Shane Lowry played the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, where they ate grilled oysters on the course, sampled the NOLA restaurant scene, won the tournament, wore beads, drank beer and sang karaoke.

“I think it freed me up a little bit,” McIlroy said before the Wells Fargo began.

He proved as much in Charlotte, North Carolina, especially with his 65 on Sunday. It was the best round of the day, even with the double at the last, and he won for a record fourth time at Quail Hollow. If he lacks any firepower, you could have fooled the runner-up.

“I mean, he played unbelievable,” Schauffele said of McIlroy. “Looked up at the board and I'm like dang, he's 6 under through six on the back nine.”

Small margins

McIlroy took just 25 putts in the final round at the Wells Fargo, so it would be easy to forget the role putting has played throughout his major drought.

In his toughest losses, McIlroy has struggled on the greens. At the 2022 Open Championship at St. Andrews, where he visualized his name atop the big, yellow leaderboard across from his hotel room, he took a staggering 36 putts in the final round, shot 70, and went from first to third.

“I hit a good putt on 13, 14, 15, 16, 17,” McIlroy said. “I was hitting good putts.”

(A contrarian might argue that a good putt is one that goes in.)

History repeated itself at last summer’s U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club, where McIlroy took 34 putts, shot a final-round 70, and finished second to Wyndham Clark by one. As he walked off the course, McIlroy called it a carbon copy of the ’22 Open.

“When I do finally win this next major, it's going to be really, really sweet,” he said. “I would go through 100 Sundays like this to get my hands on another major championship.”

Statistically, his average putts per round show improvement in three of the four majors over his last 35 starts (since 2015) compared to his first 25 starts. But he has not putted well at the right time. In his major championship career, McIlroy has recorded 34 or more putts in four final rounds – once during his first 25 starts through 2014, and three times since September of 2020.

Rory McIlroy drains 33-footer for eagle to take the lead at Wells Fargo

His short irons and wedges have come under heavier scrutiny, and his ghastliest miss at L.A.C.C. came with a wedge from the middle of the fairway at the 612-yard, par-5 14th hole, where he dumped his third shot into the rough short of the green.

Although he got embedded-ball relief, McIlroy couldn’t get up and down, missing a 9-foot par putt. He said he had misjudged the wind, but it was a terrible mistake, and not entirely atypical of him. McIlroy can look befuddled with his short irons, most notably on approaches from 75-100 yards, where he was 163rd on TOUR last season, 95th in 2022, 141st in ’21.

As for his driving, always the strength of his game, since his first 25 starts in the majors he has averaged one fewer fairway hit per round in the majors from 2015 to today. Does it matter? When trying to shave what amounts to a half a stroke per round, everything matters.

What’s more, McIlroy averaged 70.2 in his opening rounds over his first 25 major championship starts (through 2014) but has dipped to 71.5 over his last 35 starts, more than a stroke off his previous pace. Again, everything matters; it’s hard to win majors from behind.

Barely 35, McIlroy is still young. And dry spells between majors are not unprecedented; Woods broke an 11-year drought at the 2019 Masters. But one of these weeks when everything looks ripe for McIlroy to break the streak – like this week – he’s going to have to break it.

Career-defining moments come infrequently, and he will need to reassert himself when they do. He’ll need to find his killer instinct, play with joy, and inhabit that which he crooned in NOLA – "Don’t Stop Believin’" – if he wants to party like it’s 2014 at Valhalla this Sunday.

“I mean, I've been sort of banging this drum for the last few years, but I'm a way better player now than I was back then,” he said Sunday night. “I haven't had the major record to back that up, but I've had the wins, I've done everything else there is to do in the game since 2014.

“The only thing I need to do,” he added, “is get another major.”

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