Rory McIlroy heads to Valhalla in search of back-to-back Majors in US PGA
That the 25-year-old is being mentioned in same company as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods says it all
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy with the Claret Jug after his victory in the British Open at Hoylake.
On a Sunday evening back in 2000, Tiger Woods, shortly after he had completed the career Grand Slam for the first time by winning the British Open at St Andrews, was asked how he felt. “Not too bad,” was the three-worded response from a player who, at 24 years of age, had become the youngest ever to achieve the feat of winning all four of golf’s Majors – the Masters, the US Open, the British Open and the US PGA. The Claret Jug was the last piece of the jigsaw to fall into place.
Woods had made it all look so easy, probably too easy. After all, only four players had managed the feat ahead of him. His eight-stroke-winning margin that day in July had come just a month after he had won the US Open at Pebble Beach by 15 strokes. “There’s no substitute for understanding what it takes to win,” Woods would later expand, in attempting to convey to us – mere mortals – what components, mental and physical, were possessed by those players who had it in them to attain greatness.
On that day, at the home of golf, Woods joined the most exclusive club in golf. In becoming just the fifth player in history to win the career Grand Slam (of the modern era, dating back to the creation of the Masters in 1934), Woods joined Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus of those players who achieved career Grand Slams. Sarazen, Hogan and Player managed the feat only once; Nicklaus, the greatest player the game has seen, achieved it three times. Woods, too, has won three career Grand Slams.
That Sunday was one of superlatives and hyperbole. “It wasn’t that long ago that I said there would not be another Jack Nicklaus but, in fact, we are looking at one. He is the chosen one,” said Mark Calcavecchia of Woods, who added: “Jack Nicklaus was the greatest player of all time, and when all is said and done, he might still have the greatest record. But if Jack was in his prime today, I don’t think he could keep up with Tiger.”
In mentioning the two men in the same breath, Calcavecchia, as it has turned out, wasn’t wrong. The two remain the only players to have won multiple career Grand Slams – three apiece – and, yet, it is the names of those who didn’t or haven’t achieved even one which underscores how difficult it is: count in Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Tom Watson among those who all came up a leg short of achieving the Slam.
Third fastest playerThat Rory McIlroy is now being mentioned in the same company as Nicklaus and Woods says all that needs to be said about where and how far the 25-year-old Northern Irishman has come. The simple fact of the matter is that he is the third fastest player in the game to have won three Majors, after Nicklaus who was 23, and Woods who was 24.
The question now is, how far can he go?
McIlroy has moved into unchartered territory for a European golfer. Even the greats from this side of the pond of the recent past, Nick Faldo and the late Seve Ballesteros, failed to move within one leg of the Grand Slam. McIlroy joins Phil Mickelson, of the modern generation, who are one Major short: in McIlroy’s case, it is the US Masters; in Mickelson’s, it is the US Open. Of the two, time is on McIlroy’s side.
For McIlroy, that leg of the Grand Slam can’t possibly be achieved until next April when the Masters takes place. Ironically, of all the Majors, that quest for a green jacket – on a course at Augusta National seemingly tailor-made for his game – had seemed to be the most natural fit of all for the Ulsterman. That it has proven the most elusive should be put into context. After all, he is only 25.
Now, though, McIlroy’s immediate focus is on the upcoming US PGA at Valhalla where he will attempt to claim back-to-back Major titles. The last man to achieve such a feat was, as it happens, Pádraig Harrington who followed up a successful defence of the Claret Jug in the British Open at Royal Birkdale in 2008 by moving on to Oakland Hills, outside Detroit, to capture the Wanamaker Trophy.
Harrington’s feat in achieving back-to-back Majors probably didn’t get the credit it was due. It is tough enough to win one Major, to move from one course – with different set-ups, different weather and different demands on shot-making – to another and win back-to-back, is an accomplishment that very few have managed.
Number of timesWoods, of course, has done it a number of times – in 2000, when he followed up his US Open win at Pebble Beach with victory in the British Open, and then adding the US PGA and, then, the unprecedented feat of winning the 2001 Masters to become the only player in history to hold all four Major trophies simultaneously – but, before him, Nick Price, who won the British Open in 1994 and followed up by claiming the US PGA a month later, was the last player to do so. Woods would again achieve back-to-back successes when he won the British Open and the US PGA titles in 2006.
In short, it is a rare accomplishment.
Yet, that is the direction in which McIlroy has moved; a player capable of winning multiple Majors and the probability, in time, be that this coming week or in the future, of winning them successively.
That McIlroy didn’t, as he put it himself earlier this week, “dwell” on his victory at Hoylake too long, speaks volumes for his future intent. There is no resting on laurels. “I want to move,” remarked McIlroy, who later added: “I didn’t grow up wanting to lead a normal life. I grew up wanting to win Major championships .”
After McIlroy’s recent win in Hoylake, Nicklaus – some 59 years older than the Ulsterman and the benchmark for all professional golfers in terms of Majors won – claimed that McIlroy had the potential to win a lot more Majors and to close in on Woods and ultimately himself. The proviso which Nicklaus attached to the observation was if McIlroy had what he called the “hunger” to do so, year in and year out.
His own beliefOn that front, McIlroy responded with his own belief that hunger won’t be the issue. He wants to make the chase whilst also living a life that takes him to boxing matches or rugby matches and nights out with his friends, even if that is under the near-constant intrusion of all that goes with social media.
As McIlroy put it of his desire to kick on and win more Majors, “you can still lead a relatively normal life. Obviously, always the week after winning a big tournament like The Open, it’s going to be, that’s abnormal. That’s not something you’re going to have to deal with week in and week out. But I think you can still have the drive and the dedication to try to become one of the best players ever and still do relatively normal things . . . . I just want to live my life the way I want to live it, and at the same time, I feel like I can still be dedicated enough and driven enough to try to become the best player that I can be”.
Claim three MajorsIn the short term, being the best he can be could mean back-to-back Majors; in the long term, it could mean challenging the Major records of Messrs Nicklaus and Woods. In becoming the third fastest player to claim three Majors, that is the company he is already keeping.
“It’s not something I ever thought about or dreamed of,” acknowledged McIlroy of chasing down the records of the game’s two greatest players. “The next number in my head is four. I’ve won three of them. I’d like to win my fourth, and that’s it; and just try and keep going like that, just one after the other. And if it adds up to whatever number it adds up to in my career, then that’s great. I don’t want to put that pressure on myself. I don’t want to put that burden of a number to try and attain.
“As I said, you need goals, but that’s obviously too much of a long-term goal.”