LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA | Think of Rory McIlroy and images of the Northern Irishman come flooding into the mind’s eye. The McIlroy with a bird’s-nest head of hair that he had as an amateur. The McIlroy who turned professional in 2007 at the age of 18, was in the world’s top 100 one year later and became world No. 1 for the first time in March 2012. The McIlroy who bounces down fairways as if he has springs in the soles of his golf shoes.
Does anyone generate the same power with so little effort? The thunder in the stroke of Dustin Johnson is not hard to explain. Johnson is big enough to be a basketball star, or a second row in rugby union, and has the correspondingly long levers to generate clubhead speed. But Rory? Little Rory? On tiptoe he reaches Johnson’s chin. Who is the longer? McIlroy of course. And straighter. There is no more thrilling sight in golf than seeing first the glorious smoothness of a McIlroy swing followed by noting how his ball has bisected a fairway and halted perhaps 370 yards from the tee from which it was dispatched without any obvious venom. There are 10 par-4s on the North Course at the Los Angeles Country Club. In his first two rounds, McIlroy only once needed a club longer than a wedge for his second to a par-4.
There is the McIlroy who charms interviewers by pausing to think before he answers, the man who is not so much of a paragon that he won’t occasionally throw a strop and decline to talk to journalists after a bad round or a poor finish.
There is the McIlroy who was elected chairman of the PGA Tour’s Player Advisory Council at the time of the arrival of LIV Golf, and knew only of the tumultuous proposed deal between the PGA Tour and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia a few hours before it was announced. McIlroy, the man who is almost as popular in the U.S. as he is in the U.K., a man who straddles the mores of Europe and the U.S. as if these two continents were one.
There is the McIlroy who speaks so well of Luke Donald, the European Ryder Cup captain who is also a member of the Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Florida. “We live near each other in Florida, and I see him with his daughters,” McIlroy has said. “He is loving and lovely with them. It is nice to see.” Or of Jordan Spieth: “As good a golfer as he is, Jordan is an even better person.”
“When I do finally win this next major, it's going to be really, really sweet.”
There is the McIlroy the multimillionaire who may be the most naturally talented golfer in the world, the holder of four major championships, and countless other victories. McIlroy who at times has been world No. 1 and a worthy leader of the game. He is the talisman of European golf, the leader of Europe’s team at the Ryder Cup.
And there is the McIlroy who is now 34 and had won four of the game’s greatest stroke-play titles before he was 26, and none since. The man who has won three of the game’s four greatest titles but never the Masters. And now we are getting into it. This gap, say some, is putting a question mark over McIlroy.
Let’s pause here. Let’s stop piling pressure onto the shoulders of the Northern Irishman. He is doing enough of it himself. As he has said repeatedly, “No one wants me to win a major championship more than I do. No one.”
And now, after his second place Sunday at the U.S. Open here, they’ll be saying it again. When is he going to win a fifth? Brooks Koepka, not so rounded nor so naturally talented of a golfer, has passed him this year to win five.
The arc of McIlroy’s career is worth noting because of its considerable longevity. He was born on May 4, 1989 and turned pro in 2007, won his first victory on the European Tour in 2009 and his first on the PGA Tour in 2010 and rose into the top 10 of the world ranking at No. 9 at the end of 2009. Others in the top 10 then included Lee Westwood, Steve Stricker, Pádraig Harrington and Kenny Perry. Where are they now? Westwood has gone to LIV Golf, and Stricker and Harrington are playing senior golf. McIlroy was first ranked the No. 1 golfer in the world on 5 March 2012.
It is true that McIlroy’s putting is not as good as his driving. How could it be? He took 34 putts in his round Sunday. He had taken 36 in the last round of the 2022 Open at St. Andrews, where he finished third. This is more due to his accuracy in hitting greens than any waywardness with the shortest club in the bag. Last week, he hit 15 more greens than any other player.
So, it is time to end the questioning. His time will come again. He is too talented for that not to happen. A third place in the (British) Open in 2022 and now, 11 months later, a second place in the Open of the country in which he lives. Give the man credit. He is a helluva player.
Never were truer words spoken than those by him as dusk gathered Sunday night in Beverly Hills.
“When I do finally win this next major, it's going to be really, really sweet,” McIlroy said. “I would go through 100 Sundays like this to get my hands on another major championship.”
Top: Rory McIlroy
Harry How, getty Images