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Big-hitting McIlroy might lack drive

Can you believe that Rory McIlroy is 29 already? Wasn’t it just yesterday that professional golf was introduced to a skinny 18-year-old kid with a headful of curly black hair that looked like he had a poodle stashed under his hat?

Now, he’s a physical specimen – even at 5 feet, 9 inches – who is probably pound-for-pound the longest player in professional golf. He had four major championships by age 25 – only three others have done that – and has been the No. 1 player in the world.

So why is it time to worry about McIlroy?

Here’s what he told the assembled media at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open two weeks ago: “Look, if I didn't win another major for the rest of my career, nothing is going to change in my life whether I win one or not. But obviously I don't feel like I'll have fulfilled my potential.

“But at the same time, you know, there's other things in my life that are more important than golf. I'd be disappointed but again, it's not going to change things. I don't panic. It doesn't keep me up at night.”

Twenty-nine is an awfully young age to become reflective about your career, what you’ve achieved and what you haven’t. You can bet that Tiger Woods, at age 42, isn’t looking back. Whether he’s physically or mentally able to achieve it, he’s trying to win his 15th major.

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy embraces a new balance in his life, but does that leave room for an elite-level golf game?

© GOLFFILE/BRIAN SPURLOCK
Rory McIlroy embraces a new balance in his life, but does that leave room for an elite-level golf game?

McIlroy is one of the most technically talented players in the game. His swing is sublime. He drives it like a dream. Which makes it astounding that he could shoot 80 in the first round of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills when the leaders were at 69.

It was McIlroy’s third straight missed cut at the U.S. Open and his fifth MC in 10 tries. In the other three majors, he has only three missed cuts combined – one each.

He hasn’t won a major since the PGA Championship in 2014, perhaps his best year as a pro, when he also won the British Open, the WGC Bridgestone Invitational and the BMW PGA Championship, the flagship event on the European Tour.

Since that watershed season, McIlroy has been little more than ordinary when measured against his own high standard. In the two years after his last major, he won seven times: three on the European Tour and four on the PGA Tour.

In 2017, McIlroy failed to win a tournament on either tour, but he played with a rib injury for much of the year. In March, he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which rightly raised hopes that the old (young?) McIlroy might be on the verge of another spectacular season.

And those expectations emerged a month later at the Masters, when McIlroy shot a third-round 65 to put him in the final pair with Patrick Reed, who held a three-shot lead when Sunday began. Reed bogeyed the first hole, and McIlroy hit his second shot at the par-5 second hole to within 4 feet. An eagle would have wiped out Reed’s lead and given McIlroy the important early momentum.

Instead, McIlroy missed the putt and made a clumsy bogey at the third, where Reed made birdie. The three-shot lead was restored, and McIlroy already looked like he’d been gut-punched.

“I just need to give myself chances,” McIlroy said in Ireland. “I was proud of myself just to get into the final group at the Masters this year. I didn't have a good Sunday. But I would have needed something pretty special to beat Patrick, anyway.”
 

Not so special, as it turns out. Reed won by shooting 71 on Sunday. McIlroy would have needed 68 for a playoff, 67 for a victory, both entirely doable. Instead, he posted a lifeless 74 and wound up tied for fifth.

Then came the disaster at Shinnecock. “[The] U.S. Open was the U.S. Open,” he said in Ireland. “I've got two more chances this year to hopefully play myself into contention. That was my goal. My goal this year, it wasn't to win majors. It was just to give myself a chance and to put myself in positions to see how I fare.”

Does that sound like a man supremely confident in his own abilities? Instead, it’s the rationalization of a multimillionaire with a beautiful young wife who says he wants for absolutely nothing.

“I've always had other interests and I've always had things that have been a big part of my life,” he said. “I think getting married and thinking about the future and what that entails, that's huge. I think as you get older and as you evolve as a person, you change and your perspective on things changes a little bit. It's not just the golf nowadays. There's a lot more that goes into it.

“It's still my career, and I still want to make the most of it and I still feel like I have a lot of time left to make my mark on golf. But at the same time, it doesn't keep me up at night thinking, If I never win another major, I can't live with myself.”

Maybe he has no trouble sleeping, but when he awakens and catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror when no one’s around, what do you suppose he sees?

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf