The Rory McIlroy Conundrum at The Open
Leading up to the 2021 Masters and Rory McIlroy was stuck in limbo. Major-less since 2014, one of the world’s greatest contemporary golfers has had to endure a disappointing few years in the biggest events amidst the environment that he has dedicated his entire life to.
After the 2020 PGA Championship, where the Northern Irishman had finished T33 and 11 shots off winner Collin Morikawa, McIlroy shocked the world when he questioned if he still possessed the ability he displayed that once helped him dominate the sport of golf.
“Maybe I’m just not as good as I used to be… I can’t put my finger on it. I go out and try my best every single time and some days I play better than others. You’ve just got to keep going, keep persisting and see if you can do better next time.”
While he continued to persist relentlessly, he was evidently below the standards that made him such a household name. There was an absence of flair; little creativity; bogeys at the worst times and a lack of understanding of what has actually happened to him.
Clearly frustrated with his turbulent modern form, he turned his eye to Pete Cowen. The Englishman played on the European Tour during the 1970s and the following decade. Although, he received little success, winning just one event – the Zambia Open in 1976. Of the seven Open Championships he featured in, he made the cut on one occasion. While Cowen may not have been the most comprehensive player, it was clear his talent was in other departments of golf.
Since retirement, he has entered the realm of coaching. His impressive clients include: Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Danny Willet, Henrik Stenson, Gary Woodland, Brooks Koepka, Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood and currently Rory McIlroy. That is an unbelievable list of talented golfers, don’t you think?
Desperate for a return to form, Cowen was employed by McIlroy - who recently celebrated his 32nd birthday - to do just that. It started with The Masters, which is the only major absent for a career grand slam for the generational talent. A missed cut was less than ideal but with such little time to incorporate Cowen’s philosophy, it should have been expected. Next up? Victory.
This didn’t just surprise everyone associated within the sport of golf, it stunned pretty much every avid golf fan who follows the PGA Tour. However, what’s that saying: form is temporary and class is permanent? Absolutely correct for this scenario. We all know McIlroy is an unbelievable talent and of course, he was always going to win again. However, this soon was surprising and thus, the hype began to simmer yet again.
That’s the problem for the four-time major champion, the pressure applied to him by fans and media must take its toll. Cowen once noted: “The pressure on Rory McIlroy is at Tiger Woods level – it’s unfair.” He has a point. Despite not winning a major championship for seven years, he still remains one of the favourites from the bookies and his fans demand instant success. Unlike other sports, where a handful of teams would dominate, golf rarely emulates that. Any professional can win because, quite simply, they wouldn’t be there if they couldn’t.
Prior to his accomplishment at the Wells Fargo Championship, his previous victory came at the 2019 – yes, 2019 – Tour Championship. While that was a phenomenal performance with four rounds in the sixties, for someone of McIlroy’s standards, it’s simply too long between successes. After his performance in North Carolina it was time to make the short trip to Kiawah Island Golf Resort and visit a course that this man knows all too well.
At the setting of his second major triumph in 2012, off the back of his most recent win, big things were expected of McIlroy. Of course, victory was never guaranteed, but a strong performance was needed. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite have it and, as a consequence, finished in a tie for 49th. However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom; there was an evident improvement on the cut that was missed at The Masters. The next destination was Jack’s place for the Memorial Tournament.
The week did not get off to the best start as he was forced to withdraw from the Pro-Am, citing personal reasons. He did compete across the weekend, where Jon Rahm dominated the headlines as one of COVID’s cruellest sporting victims. A T18 finish was better and he allowed himself a few weeks off to prepare efficiently for the U.S. Open. If we want to understand McIlroy’s struggles in major championship golf, we need to look at his opening rounds. Typically, they are poor and have even removed him from contention after just 18 holes previously. He needed to start well: he had something to prove.
An opening 70 was welcomed. Finishing under-par during the first round was out of the usual for him based on recent major form. A difficult 72 followed before a marvellous 67 propelled him back into contention – he couldn’t, could he? The answer would be no, but not through a lack of trying. He huffed and he puffed but ultimately, the course proved a tad too tricky as Rahm would go on and steal victory from Oosthuizen, who finished second for the sixth time in his major career. This was promising from McIlroy and it was becoming clearer that the partnership brokered between Cowen and himself looked to be paying dividends.
A return back to Europe would be the setting for his next tournament, at the Irish Open. Naturally, McIlroy receives endless support wherever he visits. But Ireland? That’s a whole different ball game. Desperate to please the thousands who were there for encouragement, McIlroy struggled on a day that Mount Juliet played as easy as it ever could. Little wind resulted in pure ball flights and accurate yardages yet he would begin his quest for glory with a disappointing 72. Unbelievably, the cutline loomed harrowingly, but a characteristic 67 paved the way for a weekend resurgence. Against the script, a 73 and 74 followed which resulted in a tie for 59th. Something no-one would have predicted prior to play.
Nevertheless, with The Open on the horizon there was still one more chance: the Scottish Open. Considering the final major of the year is the week after this event, the field was simply magnificent and not one that the European Tour is prone to often. The Renaissance Club was playing forgivingly across the first two days, and the cutline stood at two-under at the halfway point. McIlroy could only muster rounds of 70 and 71 to miss the chop by a single stroke. Needless to say, it’s far from ideal preparation for The Open Championship at Royal St George’s.
While fans of McIlroy will hope that these previous two events are no more than a blip, he and Cowen have plenty of work to do if he is to return to the level he once demonstrated on a weekly basis. There are, undeniably, signs of improvement. However, after picking up victory at the Wells Fargo Championship and performing so determinedly throughout the U.S. Open, his previous two performances begin to unveil a tale that is all too similar. Can McIlroy bounce back and secure victory at The Open? Definitely. Whether he will or not is a completely different matter. Regardless of his recent performances, the partnership that he and Cowen have tirelessly worked on looks to be the correct decision if McIlroy is to recover his career and return to the forefront of professional golf.
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