Lif sweeter than ice cream for Rory McIlroy in the first half of 2015. She is the reigning US PGA and Open champion, has finished a career-best fourth at the Masters and recorded a unique Top 10 at the US Open at Chambers Bay. He won the Dubai Desert Classic, WGC Match Play and the Wells Fargo Championship – which includes a course record of 61 – in late May. The form is not so temporary.
It seemed inevitable that McIlroy would make a serious effort to keep the Claret Jug on the Old Course in St Andrews, a place he admired. An overwhelming social media bulletin cue on July 6 confirmed McIlroy had ruptured the ligaments of his left ankle playing football. He hasn’t played the game since. “And on purpose,” he said. “I don’t want to do that anymore. I pride myself on not making the same mistake twice. I’ve played other things but never played football because it can happen.” He only gave a half smile.
Events on the artificial pitch in Hollywood, County Down, with friends remain relevant. McIlroy hasn’t won a major title since the 2014 US PGA, when he was at the height of his reign. Seven years later, he acknowledges the deeper impact the injury has had than he admits.
“It certainly stopped my momentum in the majors,” he said. “I did what I did in 2014. I finished fourth at the 2015 Masters where Jordan Spieth did great. I made a run at the US Open that year. So for four majors in a row, I won two and almost another.
“The feeling of being invincible in the majors, the feeling of giving myself chance after chance… I don’t want to say it disappeared but I used to show up in the majors and felt like I had a good chance. It’s a mindset issue, a confidence thing. Maybe my confidence was just a little dent from that episode.”
McIlroy will return to Augusta National to make his eighth attempt at completing a career grand slam. That the prospect of such an epic achievement shaped so little discussion around McIlroy suited him perfectly.
“I could have won another Masters with 12 under par but in 2015 Jordan played much better than everyone else and won by a bit,” he said. “I always seem to play well when people don’t give me a chance. Lower expectations are a good thing.”
That sentiment was conveyed with a glint in his eyes and it was no wonder: hope had hovered around McIlroy since childhood and would never be lost. Through familiarity, the Master’s place no longer bothered him. “You suddenly realize that it’s just another place,” he said. “It’s just a golf club. The less you can make it a big deal is the best way to get the best out of yourself.”
When Zach Johnson was crowned the 2015 Open champion, McIlroy tried desperately to get back into shape. “When you’re in this big championship it feels like it’s the biggest thing in the world,” said the 32-year-old. “Being removed from that and going through rehab with my ankle made me realize that people are just getting on with their lives. I have a new perspective and a new appreciation of it.
“The world keeps moving. I remember being in the gym on Monday, the day the Open finished, looking around to find a TV that even had it.”
McIlroy is great at identifying moments in time. After the atrocities of 9/11 – he was 12 years old – for about five years he would dream of a plane taking off from the nearby Belfast City airport and crashing into his family home or the Hollywood golf club. “I’ve never been a great aviator,” he said. “I’m better now, I fly all the time and it’s fine. But I am much better when I have my family with me.
“I remember 9/11 very clearly. I came home from school, it happened. I had a disciplinary meeting at the Shandon Park golf club that evening.” This requires more details. “Oh, some juniors and I brought some golf carts.” The craziest thing he’s ever done? “Certainly not.”
Fast forward to September 26, 2021. McIlroy burst into tears immediately after his Ryder Cup lone win over Xander Schauffele. Europe had been beaten by the US and McIlroy looked to be working hard during the first and second day. He soon backed away from Pete Cowen, his coach for most of the year, and was reacquainted with his old tutor, Michael Bannon.
“I just went there that Sunday to play golf, be myself, be instinctive,” McIlroy said. “I played my best golf this week. There is an awareness of ‘What have I been trying to do for six months?’ That’s where the emotion came from, but I felt like repairing the ship after that.
“I tried to be a better golfer by worrying too much about technique, which I had never done before. I thought it would take me to the ‘next level’ or whatever. I decided to be more instinctive, more athletic, to see the shot and be visual.” Welcome back to the artist of nature.
In the context of his colleagues, McIlroy has a lot to say. However, there would be much more if he unknowingly strayed into troubled territory. “I offer opinions on things in our game,” he said. “Going into current affairs is a lose-lose. You can’t win. That’s the reason for the Olympic decision [choosing to represent Ireland] burdens me because you can’t please everyone.
“If I know anything about myself, it’s that I am naturally a likable person. It weighs on me if I piss people off. I don’t want people not to like me. You end up in a better place to say nothing. I still feel like I’m very quiet, I could have said more but I didn’t. This isn’t my place either, is it? I [only] golfers at the end of the day.”
But why is the professional golf domain generally not as honest as McIlroy? “This is a very conservative sport. It’s a mental game too that if you have an opinion and go against the popular then with social media and everything you can be slaughtered for any kind of mistake. It weighs on your performance and people are afraid of it.
“The mentality is very important here. You have so much time between shots to think about all sorts of crap. It’s inevitable that things can get into your head and you can lose concentration. ”
McIlroy believes fatherhood has intensified his drive in the ropes. That was evident in Dubai this year, when the scale of his anger after throwing away a brilliant chance for another Desert Classic win was clear. “This is an outlet for me,” he said. “I’m on track and that competitive line is not something I want to take home.”
In a slow-moving 2022, it makes sense to point out that McIlroy’s game hasn’t returned the appropriate rate of return.
The idea that his wait for a big No 5 win could eventually put him on par with so many other players at the top of the sport received a swift rebuke. “I didn’t think I would ever be ‘just an average golfer,’” he said. “Four majors, 32 wins worldwide, part of a great Ryder Cup. I’m not just any golfer. I am a Hall of Famer. So I’m not worried about that.”
So, it doesn’t make any sense at all what might happen; and much of what may be to come.
Rory McIlroy: ‘I naturally please people. I don’t want people to dislike me’ | Rory McIlroy
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