Rory McIlroy can return to the top after a year to forget
It has been an injury-plagued campaign for McIlroy but don’t rule out a 2018 revival
Rory McIlroy misses out on the conclusion of the FedEx Cup, a year after winning the competition. Photograph: Andy Lyons/Getty
It would be an act of exaggeration to suggest the absence of Rory McIlroy casts a dark shadow over the conclusion to the FedEx Cup. The American golfing public are perfectly content with a scenario whereby Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson or Justin Thomas are the most likely to leave East Lake on Sunday evening as $10m richer.
Nonetheless, just as any event is richer in appeal for McIlroy’s involvement, now is the right time to reflect on a 12-month spell which, even by the standards of this player’s uncanny propensity to write his own headlines, stands out.
Not lost on the Northern Irishman himself, amid personal milestones but fitness frustration, will be the lack of professional success which once came so naturally. In this, the week which marks the 10th anniversary of McIlroy turning professional, he sits eighth in the world rankings, a faintly ludicrous scenario for a golfer of his talent. He has, after all, spent 95 weeks as No1.
McIlroy didn’t have time to cherish his 2016 FedEx Cup success. His movie star appeal had been emphasised by a hole-out from East Lake’s 16th fairway, just as McIlroy’s ability to battle – something routinely underplayed – was illustrated by emergence from a tense play-off battle with Ryan Moore and Kevin Chappell.
The four-time major winner was sitting in completion of media duties, his pride at ticking off another career goal abundantly clear, when he was informed of the death of Arnold Palmer. The narrative instantly and understandably shifted, McIlroy offering a heartfelt and personal tribute to The King. Albeit the team colour was wrong, Palmer would have approved of the spirit, showmanship and leadership as demonstrated by McIlroy even in defeat at the following weekend’s Ryder Cup.
Nobody could reasonably have predicted what happened next. McIlroy’s season was complete in Dubai in mid November, where he spoke so positively about 2017, which would include marriage and a second tilt at completing the career grand slam. Even Nike’s withdrawal from the equipment market was met with a silver lining stance. McIlroy could sample the rest of the market, essentially for the first time.
But McIlroy’s start to the year supplied the storyline that was to undermine so much of it thereafter. A rib problem, which manifested itself in back pain and spasms, arose at the South African Open. It cost him valuable Masters build-up events. It has been the recurring mitigating factor to dwarf all others and denied McIlroy the work-out regime which forms a backdrop to his golf.
McIlroy departed Georgia without a Green Jacket but preparing for imminent marriage. Of all the influences on McIlroy, there can be no question that of Erica Stoll has been hugely positive by way of calmness and perspective. That may never have been more necessary than when McIlroy accepted the invitation of a February game with Donald Trump, a move which prompted vehement and global criticism. The sad element of that was, as a child of Belfast’s outskirts, McIlroy is far more aware of political sensitivities than many of those doing the screaming at him.
McIlroy was wounded by a missed cut at the Irish Open, with the Open Championship to prove his last outing alongside long-time caddie JP Fitzgerald. Occasionally, McIlroy supplies sharp reminders of a ruthless approach to change. And change comes of his own volition, with McIlroy of a mind to make his own decisions rather than allow committee governance of his game.
Context is useful. Even when playing with what has commonly been his C-game, McIlroy has returned five PGA Tour top 10s and a share of fourth at the Open. To others, a decent return. To McIlroy? Little use.
By the time he reached the opening three events of the FedEx play-offs, McIlroy showed little to demonstrate he really wanted to be there. Intriguing, too, was the sudden addition of the British Masters after Tour Championship participation became a no-go.
If, and it remains a viable possibility, pressure has been applied by Tours on either side of the Atlantic for McIlroy to play then it would be hugely disappointing. McIlroy has been, and will remain, a huge asset to golf. He is also admirably prone to doing what he regards as the right thing for a greater good. But now, he simply has to get fully fit or his appearances anywhere come with a negative subtext.
There are other ponderables. It has been disheartening to see McIlroy, such a natural artist, visibly confused to the point of intense frustration with regards to putting. The hope, surely, is that he can return to the free flowing and free thinking approach of his youth. Contrary to what has become common perception, he isn’t at base level a poor putter at all.
The curious thing is, McIlroy isn’t an isolated case in what has been in many ways an odd year for golf. Jason Day, hampered by injury and the ill-health of his mother, has been well short of his best. Henrik Stenson hasn’t built on 2016 Open glory. Adam Scott, with focus by his own admission affected by two young children, is now 22nd in the world. Bubba Watson? Almost a forgotten man at No54. Even Johnson has provided anticlimax, given his all-conquering run between the new year and a topple down stairs pre-Masters.
That key backdrop of injury aside, this cannot be classed as McIlroy’s professional nadir. Nobody who witnessed his turmoil throughout the majority of 2013 could offer a comparison to now. And yet, that season throws up two interesting parallels.
Four years ago, McIlroy’s switch to Nike clubs and ball was widely thrown forward as a reason for poor form. Recent months have seen TaylorMade become McIlroy’s manufacturer of choice. It would seem strange to ignore surely a natural element of adjustment. What happened next is also worthy of consideration. McIlroy rebounded in 2014 to win two majors and re-establish himself as the best player in his sport.
It is worth remembering that Spieth, Day and Johnson still trail McIlroy in career achievement terms. At 28, it is well within McIlroy’s grasp to become the greatest European player ever when passing Nick Faldo’s major tally of six. Even Gary Player’s haul of nine, the most for a non-American, should be a legitimate target.
Next year will see McIlroy appear alongside a new caddie, most likely a fresh schedule as he looks to solve the Augusta National conundrum, and surely a renewed sense of purpose. For reminders of what golf is like when all others dance to McIlroy’s tune, East Lake in 2016 is a decent place to start.