McIl­roy a mas­ter of his own destiny

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT -

WHEN Rory McIl­roy won the US PGA Cham­pi­onship in Au­gust 2014 it seemed a hugely im­por­tant vic­tory, the kind which an­nounces the be­gin­ning of a new era. The way he won it, re­pelling the fi­nal-round chal­lenges of a host of world-class ri­vals, was im­pres­sive enough. But even more sig­nif­i­cant was the fact that he had won the Bri­tish Open three weeks pre­vi­ously, mak­ing him just the third golfer in 30 years, along with Tiger Woods and Pádraig Har­ring­ton, to win suc­ces­sive Ma­jors.

In be­tween those wins had come a thrilling vic­tory in the Bridge­stone In­vi­ta­tional. McIl­roy was the first golfer to win three PGA events on the trot since Woods a dozen years ear­lier. Woods and Jack Nick­laus were the only other golfers to have won four Ma­jors by the age of 25.

Nick­laus him­self de­clared, in the after­math of that tour de force at Val­halla, that McIl­roy could well win 15 or 20 Ma­jors. This was merely the most strik­ing ver­sion of a state­ment you heard all the time back then, that McIl­roy, “will win as many Ma­jors as he wants to”. His per­for­mance in 2014 seemed to prove that this and the re­lated be­lief that the Ir­ish­man would be Woods’ suc­ces­sor were un­de­ni­able truths.

The new era has not dawned. Three and a half years later that ap­par­ently piv­otal Ma­jor vic­tory is McIl­roy’s last to date. As the first Ma­jor of the year ap­proaches, 2018 seems an ab­so­lutely vi­tal year in the life of per­haps the most nat­u­rally-gifted Ir­ish sports­man since Ge­orge Best.

It might seem lu­di­crous to sug­gest that a player who was in the world top three for all of 2015 and 2016 and cur­rently lies sev­enth is suf­fer­ing a cri­sis. But we don’t judge sports stars solely on what they achieve, we judge them on what they achieve rel­a­tive to their po­ten­tial. Should Roscom­mon or Mon­aghan reach this year’s All-Ire­land fi­nal and lose, that would be a mon­u­men­tal achieve­ment. If Dublin did the same thing no one would be im­pressed.

Four years ago McIl­roy showed he had the abil­ity to be­come one of the great­est play­ers in the his­tory of golf and per­haps even chal­lenge Nick­laus and Woods at the sum­mit. So while 2015 brought a vic­tory in the World Match­play and 2016 one in the PGA Tour Cham­pi­onship, the lack of a Ma­jor made them slightly dis­ap­point­ing by the very high­est stan­dards. Last year was dis­ap­point­ing by any stan­dards, an in­jury-ham­pered McIl­roy fail­ing to win a sin­gle tour­na­ment for the first time since his sec­ond year as a pro­fes­sional, in 2008.

That’s some­thing he’s al­ready reme­died this year and it’s that vic­tory a fort­night ago in the Arnold Palmer In­vi­ta­tional, in par­tic­u­lar the fi­nal-round 64 which blew away the op­po­si­tion, which sug­gests 2018 might see McIl­roy re­turn to his very best. He is many peo­ple’s pick to win the Masters which be­gins on Thurs­day and it is the only Ma­jor to have eluded him so far.

Given that McIl­roy is 28 you can hardly say that time is run­ning out for him. But it’s pass­ing all the same. By the time Woods was 28 he’d won eight Ma­jors. And McIl­roy has been suc­ceeded as tour wun­derkind by a num­ber of young and prodi­giously tal­ented ri­vals. There’s Jor­dan Spi­eth who has three Ma­jors and is just 24. Another 24-year-old, Justin Thomas, won last year’s PGA Cham­pi­onship, topped the money list and is the game’s new sen­sa­tion. Spain’s Jon Rahm is younger still at 23 and is cur­rently num­ber three in the world.

Never have there been so many world­class young­sters. Last year’s US Open win­ner Brooks Koepka is younger than McIl­roy, as are the English duo of Tommy Fleet­wood and Tyrell Hat­ton, lurk­ing just out­side the world top ten and prob­a­bly just one Ma­jor vic­tory from join­ing the game’s elite. Xan­der Schauf­fele be­came the first rookie to win the Tour Cham­pi­onship last year and is only 24.

Could to­mor­row be­long to them? They’ve cer­tainly changed the golf­ing land­scape. When McIl­roy won that PGA cham­pi­onship in 2014, Thomas was on the satel­lite tour, Rahm was play­ing col­lege golf for Ari­zona State and Schauf­fele had just won the Cal­i­for­nian am­a­teur cham­pi­onship. These hugely tal­ented and hun­gry young men prob­a­bly don’t be­lieve that the num­ber of Ma­jors McIl­roy wins is up to him alone.

One of the sad­dest sen­tences in fic­tion is the penul­ti­mate one from Charles Por­tis’s great True Grit, “Time just gets away from us”. It’s sad be­cause it’s true and it ap­plies to great sports­men as much as the rest of us. We don’t think of golf as a young man’s game, but most of its finest play­ers get their best work done in the first half of their ca­reers. Sev­e­ri­ano Balles­teros had his five Ma­jors won by the age of 31, six of Arnold Palmer’s seven came by the time he was 33, as did four of Lee Trevino’s six, Tom Wat­son had won his eight be­fore his 34th birth­day.

Even Jack Nick­laus, that epit­ome of com­pet­i­tive longevity, had amassed 14 of his record 18 by the time he was 35. With ev­ery fal­low year the win­dow for McIl­roy max­imis­ing his po­ten­tial gets a lit­tle smaller.

Yet it’s en­tirely pos­si­ble that he can re­cap­ture the form of 2014. We tend to think of Tiger Woods as an all-con­quer­ing force in his pomp. Yet af­ter the 2000-2002 glory years, where he won six of the 12 Ma­jors, Woods drew a blank in 2003 and 2004, briefly los­ing his num­ber one rank­ing to Vijay Singh. There were even sug­ges­tions that his day was done, but he bounced back to win two Ma­jors in each of 2005 and 2006. McIl­roy has the tal­ent to do some­thing sim­i­lar.

Speak­ing of Tiger, for the first time in sev­eral years he will be en­ter­ing a Ma­jor as a gen­uine con­tender, a sto­ry­line as in­ter­est­ing to the gen­eral sport­ing pub­lic as the tra­vails of McIl­roy et al are to the golf fan. When, two and a half weeks ago, Woods had a long putt to force a play-off at the Valspar Cham­pi­onship, the in­ter­est gen­er­ated re­minded you that he is one of those rare play­ers who tran­scends his sport.

Peo­ple who don’t know who Dustin John­son is, let alone that he’s world num­ber one, wor­ship Tiger in the same way that peo­ple who couldn’t tell Ken Nor­ton from Jimmy Young loved Muham­mad Ali. Woods missed that putt, but sec­ond place was his best fin­ish since 2013. The fifth place which fol­lowed in the Arnold Palmer In­vi­ta­tional sug­gested it was no fluke.

Could he win in Au­gusta? If he did it would prob­a­bly rank as the great­est come­back vic­tory in the his­tory of sport, ri­valling Ali’s re­cap­ture of the world heavy­weight ti­tle in Kin­shasa af­ter a seven-year gap. The moral­ists among us would like to sug­gest that Woods has never been the same since the per­sonal scan­dals of 2009, but he ac­tu­ally re­cov­ered from those to re­gain his world num­ber one slot in 2013 and still held it as re­cently as May 2014.

It is the back op­er­a­tions which seemed to do for Tiger and his de­cline in the last four years has been pre­cip­i­tous. The drink driv­ing ar­rest in May of last year and the sorry look­ing mugshots which ac­com­pa­nied it seemed to show a man on the road to ruin. You felt that the next time Woods trended on Twit­ter the news would not be good.

Now here he is, al­most mirac­u­lously it seems, once more at­tract­ing at­ten­tion for his golf. All the same, his chances of sur­pass­ing Nick­laus have al­most cer­tainly gone. Time has got away from Tiger too. He is 42, an age when not many golfers win Ma­jors. Yet there have been ex­cep­tions, Nick­laus at 46 in the Masters, Hale Ir­win at 45 in the US Open, Trevino at 44 in the PGA. If Tiger could em­u­late them, and have one more glory day, it might well prove to be the most mem­o­rable vic­tory in the his­tory of golf.

Woods is not the only player en­joy­ing a re­nais­sance at the mo­ment. Bubba Wat­son, Masters win­ner in 2012 and 2014, slumped from tenth to 89th in the world rank­ings last year, but his win in last week’s World Match­play strikes an omi­nous note. Phil Mick­el­son’s play-off win over Justin Thomas in the WGC Mex­ico Cham­pi­onship was his first tour­na­ment win in five years. Could he, at 47, be­come the old­est Masters cham­pion of all time?

All the young dudes have the po­ten­tial to get into con­tention. Or per­haps Rickie Fowler, af­ter six top-five Ma­jor fin­ishes in the last four years, can fi­nally break through. Then there’s Justin Rose, Ja­son Day, Paul Casey and of course Dustin John­son, a not par­tic­u­larly charis­matic world leader but a very ef­fi­cient one.

My money is on Rory but my heart is with Tiger. What a week lies ahead of us. This is one sport­ing event which needs no hype at all.

By the time Woods was 28 he’d won eight Ma­jors

‘Given that Rory McIl­roy is 28, you can hardly say that time is run­ning out for him. But it’s pass­ing all the same’

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