As the crow flies, it’s about 100 miles between Niagara Falls and Oak Hill Country Club, where the US PGA Championship will be played in the coming days.
If we are to use this as a route to easy symbolism, then it might be tempting to ask which drop is sharper: the plunge off the edge of the ancient waterfall, or the one in the form of Rory McIlroy over the 10 last weeks?
It’s a strange era for golf and an unfamiliar time for a man who, in his time, has more than a decent claim to be its best player. Alas, there weren’t enough in March, April and early May, beyond his run to the WGC MatchPlay semi-finals six weeks ago.
Indeed, it seems hardly believable that his last three strokeplay events saw him miss the cut at the Masters and The Players Championship, with his weekend appearance at Wells Fargo in Quail Hollow last weekend ago. only possible because he survived the slaughter by a single shot.
This being McIlroy, one could safely assume that funk will expire much sooner rather than later.
Rory McIlroy has had a pretty remarkable drop in form over the past 10 weeks
McIlroy has missed Masters and Players Championship cuts in his last three strokeplay events
Question marks hang over his head as to whether his often lonely crusade against LIV hurt him in the long run
“It’s a blip and nothing more,” said former European Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance Sports Mail this week. Most reasonable judgments would agree with him.
But nonetheless, there is a semi-urgent question as to which version of the world No. 3 will feature at the second major of the year in Rochester, NY.
Four days is difficult to answer, given McIlroy’s public comment has been so limited since he left Augusta without speaking to media, social or otherwise, and then did the same after his disappointing draw for 47th. at Quail Hollow.
In between, he said enough about Augusta’s emotional toil, and the wider strain of coordinating the PGA Tour’s response to LIV, that it looks like he succumbed to exhaustion at the wrong time. . The candle has burned at both ends for the better part of 12 months and it is unfortunate that McIlroy has been burned just as the majors arrive.
“He’s been involved in a lot of things outside of class, and he’s done a great job with that,” Torrance added.
“What we saw in Augusta will have been a blow for him. The amount of preparation he will have done and the quality of his game will have meant that it hurt a lot that the week went like this.
“But these guys are a different breed. He took a long time to die down and it really wouldn’t be surprising if he had a great week in Oak Hill. No way.
It’s worth remembering that some of McIlroy’s best golf in years was played during this Civil War era – three PGA Tour wins, another on the European Tour and the season-ending No. 1 on both. That on top of excellent second, eighth, fifth and third finishes at the 2022 majors.
His fight for the soul of golf was admired by many inside and outside the game, but he could have suffered from burnout.
No one liked the sniping that happened between McIlroy and nemesis Patrick Reed
There were times in the run where he seemed energized by a mission beyond hitting balls – hitting Greg Norman seemed almost as fun, and there was no denying that he thrived.
In all of this, of course, there was some media complicity – the more he gave on LIV, the more questions we asked LIV, and always the answers were fascinating, covering some particularly memorable press conferences at separate tournaments in Dubai. During one he said peace could not be negotiated until Norman left and allowed an “adult in the room”. In the other, he willingly provided the backdrop to his falling out with LIV rebel Patrick Reed, including details of a Christmas Eve subpoena. Few honest journalists could say that we would have preferred to hear about chips and putts.
As a golfer and talker, McIlroy has proven himself as a figure with few equals, but there are those who would say his game could have benefited from less heart and pulse injections. On a similar theme, many believe that PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan could have spared the Northern Irishman some of the burden by being more visible during this time.
By his admission, McIlroy now pays for his political contributions, so it’s up to him whether, overall, the extracurriculars were worth it. For all he has gained financially from Tour restructuring and, by extension, all the heckling of LIV, it’s tempting to think back to a Player Advisory Board meeting McIlroy attended before the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the beginning of March. It lasted seven hours. McIlroy finished second that week, but the road to burnout can be short with that level of obligation.
As always, discussions around McIlroy will be shaped by his wider quest for major titles and he is forever reminded that nine years have passed since his fourth and most recent success.
Likewise, he will know that the statistical maximum age of a major winning golfer is 32 and he is now 34. That’s six years older than Jon Rahm and eight older than Scottie Scheffler, the other two kings of the current game of golf.
There’s no denying that McIlroy – a big talker – thrived on hitting Greg Norman (R)
McIlroy admitted he is now paying for his political contributions – only he will know if it was worth it
Using age against McIlroy feels like terribly flawed logic, given his form from April last year. But you may wonder about his buildup of scar tissue, and in a more immediate sense, his current decline is striking. This is particularly evident through his quirk off the tee, which saw him hit just 20 of 56 fairways all week at Quail Hollow.
Worryingly, there doesn’t seem to be a consistent misfire either – as with Augusta, some shoot left and some jam right, so the modified driver after the Players Championship didn’t turn out to be the complete solution. It should also be noted that having recently switched to a Scotty Cameron blade putter, he then reverted to a mallet style with no obvious success at Wells Fargo.
If there’s any encouragement, it’s that McIlroy is a member of Oak Hill and considers the area a second home because his wife is from Rochester. The layout is familiar to him and should be favourable, due to the 2019 redesign which lengthened the course to 7,400 meters and removed hundreds of trees.
Even with more difficult conditions in this region at this time of year, the layout could be milder for a bomber like McIlroy than in previous years. Writing him off would be a mistake, but talking about him carries more risk than usual.