Will Rory rise again? McIlroy still has game but needs to deliver in Open

SOUTHAMPTON, NY - JUNE 15: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays his shot from the 13th tee during the second round of the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on June 15, 2018 in Southampton, New York. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images) Warren Little/Getty Images

Will Rory rise again? McIlroy still has game but needs to deliver in Open

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Will Rory rise again? McIlroy still has game but needs to deliver in Open

When the British Open last visited Carnoustie, Rory McIlroy was a gawky 18-year-old with a haircut that suggested his finger had gotten stuck in a power outlet. There was nothing awkward about his game, though. Competing in his first major championship, he opened with a 68 and was T-3 on the leaderboard before going on to secure low amateur honors at T-42.

“We all knew that was coming. It was not anything unexpected,” said Padraig Harrington, who won that 2007 British Open. “He’s done tremendously well to follow it up. He’s got four majors under his belt and people are wondering why he’s not winning more.”

Such are the demanding standards against which McIlroy is measured. Only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods owned as many major victories at such a tender age, but the Northern Irishman’s drought has lasted almost four years, since he won both the British and the PGA Championship in the summer of 2014.

At 29, McIlroy arrives at Carnoustie for the 148th Open every bit as eager to make a statement as that unpolished teenager was 11 years ago.

“I’m a lot older, hopefully wiser and vastly more experienced than my younger self, but I don’t honestly think the 18-year-old Rory would have wanted the knowledge I possess today,” McIlroy told Golfweek. “I believe that I have really needed the years to absorb and process the pressures of golf at its highest level. I had to build a bank of knowledge and experience that I could call on later.”

McIlroy turned pro two months after that Carnoustie Open. His first European Tour win came at 19, his first major at 22.

“Success at an early age is a double-edged sword,” said Paul McGinley, McIlroy’s former Ryder Cup captain. “It’s great in that you get the titles, the adulation, the money. But it also brings a huge burden of expectation. That’s what Rory is wrestling with. Jordan Spieth is the same. What we’ve seen over the last four years is not the same Rory. Not the same vibe, not the same intensity.”

Recent flashes of brilliance

McGinley says he misses the undeniable swagger of the young McIlroy. “He had pointy elbows in the early stage of his career. ‘Get out of my way! Here I come! Not only am I going to beat you, I’m going to dominate you!’ That hunger, that drive. A lot of people get it until they win a major championship, then it dissipates. It’s a very hard thing to sustain, particularly as lifestyles get in the way. You get married, have kids, business interests growing.”

McIlroy married his wife, Erica, in April 2017, and after overcoming a lingering rib injury has shown recent flashes of his familiar brilliance, notably in winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March. But not in the tournaments he values most. At the Masters, he played in Sunday’s final group but faded dispiritingly early. His T-5 finish was his seventh top-10 in the 14 majors he’s played since last winning one.

He doesn’t disguise his desire to claim another nor underestimate the challenge that lies ahead on the famously severe Carnoustie layout.

HOYLAKE, ENGLAND - JULY 20: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland celebrates with the Claret Jug after his two-stroke victory after the final round of The 143rd Open Championship at Royal Liverpool on July 20, 2014 in Hoylake, England. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/R&A/R&A via Getty Images)

It has been four years since Rory McIlroy captured the Claret Jug with a 2-shot victory in the 143rd Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. (Ross Kinnaird/R&A via Getty Images)

“I have to say that I’m looking forward to being there again and getting a feel for what awaits us during the week of the Open. I’d also like to think that I can call on some of the solid play and carefully thought-out course management I brought to Hoylake in 2014,” McIlroy said. “Carnoustie will test to the limit the skill, creativity and survival skills of every golfer.”

No tournament better illustrates the enigma of Rory McIlroy than the British Open, and never more starkly than at St. Andrews in 2010. His first-round 63 showed how the young prodigy could bludgeon a defenseless links. That was Thursday. Friday brought 40-mph gales and evidence of what a blustery links could do to a still inexperienced player caught on the draughty side of the draw. He shot 80.

“I just let it get away from me,” he said afterward.

Weather won’t be a concern

That day created a perception that McIlroy has been unable to shake despite the passage of time and the harvesting of major trophies: That when the going gets tough, he finds it tough to get going. His performance at last month’s U.S. Open did little to assuage those doubts. When winds raked Shinnecock Hills in the first round, McIlroy again carded an 80.

“I think it’d be fair to say that all golfers, myself included, have a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to windy conditions,” McIlroy said. “As long as the wind isn’t gale-force, it’s really a case of adapting, controlling the ball flight and managing the challenge. Some days it’ll work while on others it’ll be a case of damage limitation. Every major championship is an exercise in extreme mental and physical tenacity, whether it’s windy or not.

“I won’t go to Carnoustie placing any great emphasis on how the weather will impact the event. I never do. I’ll work hard on every facet of my game and get as much links practice in as possible beforehand. For me, it’ll be very much about quickly reacquainting myself with a course that holds great memories for me and, with Harry [Diamond, his caddie], plotting a strategy that will hopefully stand us in good stead from Thursday’s tee off.”

Carnoustie is one of the three courses used in the European Tour’s Dunhill Links pro-am, in which McIlroy has often competed with his father, Gerry.

“We’ve had a great time over the past couple of years. My dad also likes to remind me that he has occasionally posted a lower score than me,” he said. “Carnoustie during the Open Championship will be a completely different animal to the kinder setup we enjoy at the Dunhill.”

A British Open at Carnoustie guarantees fickle weather, lousy food and a pitiless test for the world’s best golfers. For every under-par winner here – Harrington at 7-under, Tom Watson at 9-under – there are those like Gary Player and Paul Lawrie who took home the claret jug with over-par totals. No one has won an Open on this dour links with a score double digits under par. That makes one statistic in McIlroy’s gilded career worth pondering.

He has won 24 tournaments around the globe, but the highest winning total in any of those victories is 12-under-par. He has never won an event in which single digits under par was good enough. That suggests he can spread the field when scoring is easier but struggles in meaner circumstances.

“He’s well capable of playing in any conditions,” Harrington said. “Softer conditions suit him. If you’re hitting the ball 330 yards onto a hard, bouncing fairway in the wind, that’s a difficult task. It’s an easier task on a soft fairway with no wind. He tends to do well in those conditions. He can blow the field away. On a links golf course, it’s more of a patience and mental and short-game test. It doesn’t play to his strengths.”

McGinley agrees that the young king has all the shotmaking tools necessary for Carnoustie. What he’s looking for is evidence of a renewed competitive edge that was so readily apparent when he was a mere prince.

“Competitiveness is not just about making a birdie on the last hole to win by a shot. Competitiveness is shooting 77 instead of 80. Or 74 instead of 77,” he said. “Rory’s proved that he has that instinct at crucial stages. He’s ahead of anyone who’s ever played at his age apart from Tiger and Jack.

“What is forward for Rory? Only he can answer that. Is he going to extend his four major championships or will he continue to sit at the top table – which he’s doing at the moment – but not be Jesus at the table? That’s what he looked like he was going to be. The determining factor in whether Rory will rise again is the ability to recreate what he had in the early part of his career. Then the game needs to look out because that’s when we’re going to see the best of him again. So far it’s an A+. What’s going forward? That’s the big question.” Gwk

(Note: This story appeared in the July 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

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