SOUTHPORT, England – Is Rory McIlroy ready for the 146th British Open? Well, Wednesday at Royal Birkdale, he chose to borrow a thought from the fellow golfer/philosopher Tom Weiskopf: “When I’m playing well, I can never imagine how I ever played so badly; and when I play badly, I can never imagine how I played so great.”
Where does McIlroy sit on the eve of his ninth Open start? He thought about it for a second, then laughed. Somewhere in the middle, he presumes. He’s not really sure. In 2017, he hasn’t really played enough golf to know, having been slowed by a nagging rib injury that has curtailed his ability to practice and limited his play to 10 events.
He arrives to Birkdale having missed the cut in three of his last four starts (U.S. Open, Irish Open, Scottish Open). That isn’t the type of momentum the four-time major champion thought he’d be bringing into the thick of the summer back in early January, when he was sailing along in health and held high promise for another big season.
Instead, it has been a campaign of starts and stops, mostly the latter, having been diagnosed initially with a hairline fracture of a rib after finishing second at the South Africa Open. He rested six weeks, made his comeback at WGC-Mexico, tied for seventh at the Masters, got married, took another break, and overdid it in his lead-in to The Players, hitting too many balls in back-to-back days. His injury needs management and rest. And after four rounds at Players, he was back on the sideline for a bit, not playing again until last month’s U.S. Open.
Healthwise, he feels OK again, but his golf hasn’t been there. There has been no rhythm or momentum to seize.
“I’m feeling like I’m doing the right things and just trying to stay as patient as possible, and enjoy the process of trying to improve and trying to get better and trying to prepare for tournaments and hit the shots that I’m going to need for that week,” McIlroy said. “It hasn’t quite happened for me over the past couple of weeks. But as I keep saying, it doesn’t feel that far away.
“And because I haven’t played that much, the only thing I can really do is take some sort of confidence from what I’m seeing in practice, and sometimes that doesn’t quite translate to what happens on the course … and that’s sort of been the case for the last few months.”
McIlroy has an affinity for Royal Birkdale, which he first encountered at the 2005 British Amateur. Two years later, still an amateur, he was playing in his first Open at Carnoustie, just trying to soak in everything he could. Life was a lot different then. He didn’t give a thought to winning. And now that he’s here, with all that he has accomplished, and at No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking, recapturing that Claret Jug is first and foremost on his mind.
McIlroy was asked if he wanted to win this week at Birkdale, or if he needed to win.
“I want to win this week. I don’t need to win,” he said. “A second Open Championship isn’t going to change my life. But I want to win. I’m still as ambitious now as I was starting off my career, if not more so now because I know what I’ve achieved and I know what I can achieve. So it only makes you want to do that even more.”
At 28, McIlroy has matured. He’s not the young man who complained about being on the wrong side of the draw at Royal St. George’s in 2011, now accepting that the draw – and the luck involved within it, given Mother Nature’s moodiness in this part of the world – is part of the tradition and beauty of the world’s oldest major. McIlroy likes what he has seen in his game in his practice sessions, and will play Birkdale tactically, hoping to lean on a new 1-iron that is in his bag to position himself off the tee.
His putting has held him back – McIlroy seemed to be conducting putter “tryouts” at The Travelers last month – but he recognizes putting as being “2 percent of what it is. Ninety-eight percent is the guy who’s holding it.” So he has worked on getting the technical thoughts out of his head so that he can stand over putts and simplify his thinking to making a good stroke and holing putts.
August is near, but there still is time for McIlroy to do something special, just as he did three years ago, when he peeled off two major victories late in his summer, winning at Hoylake (Open) and at the PGA (Valhalla). They were majors Nos. 3 and 4 for McIlroy, and he has not won one since.
The pieces are all there. But when will he put them all together again?
“I’m in good spirits,” he said. “I’m just waiting for that round, or that moment, where it sort of clicks and I’ll be off and running.”
Some local booking parlors in England have McIlroy hovering somewhere near 20-to-1 odds this week, rather high for a four-time major winner who not so long ago was on top of the world.
“It’s a good time to back me,” he said.