ST. LOUIS – Suppose it were possible to customize a major-championship setup just the way you like it as easily as ordering a surf-and-turf dinner at a steakhouse.
Now imagine Rory McIlroy placing his PGA Championship order. It might go something like this:
“As an appetizer, I’d like a couple of inches of pre-tournament rain. I want my turf soft, like pudding, not hard, like Cap’n Crunch.
“For the salad, I want the greens pretty slow. You know how Augusta National’s greens are the gold standard for scary fast? I want the Mona Lisa of slow greens. Like Carnoustie. No putt should die in the cup. I want my greens to be Hammer Time.
“The main course should be long – you can’t make it too long for me, honestly. And it should absolutely be served from right to left, always from right to left. For my sides, I’ll take the steak fries plus no wind and no rain. I had my fill of that stuff in Northern Ireland – the wind and rain, I mean; not the steak fries.
“I’ll have a Ryder Cup victory for dessert. And please charge my dinner to that gentleman dancing like Disco Duck by his table over there. His name is Mr. Mickelson. Thank you.”
Sometimes, the obvious choice is too obvious to ignore. This week at Bellerive in the 100th PGA Championship, that choice is McIlroy. He has won four majors but none since 2014. They’ve all been won in eerily similar situations: soft courses, low scores, slow-ish greens and largely quiet weather conditions.
© GOLFFILE/BRIAN SPURLOCK
With slower, softer greens likely this week at Bellerive for the PGA Championship, Rory McIlroy could solve his putting problems and regain his major mojo.
Bellerive ticks all of McIlroy’s boxes this week. A rain-softened course? Yes, it absolutely pounded rain here a few times Tuesday, enough to ensure that Bellerive isn’t going to be mistaken for Carnoustie’s trampoline-like bounces between now and Sunday.
Long course? Long enough, check, because the doglegs make it play longer than the scorecard indicates, but that’s true only for the average hitter, if any of those are left. Blasters such as McIlroy and Dustin Johnson barely will notice some of the doglegs as they fly tee shots over them. Even better, Bellerive’s holes make almost as many left turns as a NASCAR race. McIlroy’s strength is a right-to-left draw.
Slow greens? That’s a PGA Championship staple because this is August, it’s Missouri and it’s going to be sizzling hot every day, which means the greens have to be watered so they don’t fry up like hash browns and die. The wind and rain are out of our control, but the forecast looks reasonable, although any Midwesterner knows that a weather forecast four days out is merely a suggestion, nothing more.
The table is set for McIlroy to end his major-championship drought. The question is whether McIlroy is ready to sit down and put the napkin on his lap (tee times).
He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational back in March and looked like the Rory McIlroy of old. He was fifth at the Masters but closed with 74. He opened with 80 at the U.S. Open and missed the cut. He tied for second at Carnoustie after a pair of 70s on the weekend, an opportunity missed. Last week’s Bridgestone Invitational, an event that he previously has won, looked worse. He had another chance to win, shot 73 in the final round and dropped to T-6.
These are good finishes for your average PGA Tour player. McIlroy always has been far more than that, a fact that he knows all too well. Since the start of the year, he has improved from 11th in the Official World Golf Ranking to fifth. Of course, he used to be No. 1.
“I’ve done a lot of good things,” McIlroy said on a rainy Tuesday. “The only thing I haven’t done is win enough. I’ve given myself a lot of chances. I played in a lot of final groups and haven’t played well enough when it counted.
“It doesn’t take a final round like I played at Bay Hill (64) to win golf tournaments. Last Sunday, Justin Thomas made a lot of pars, didn’t put himself under much pressure and did what he needed to do to win [the WGC Bridgestone Invitational]. I don’t think I’ve had a lead going into the final day, so I’m always feeling like I’m under pressure to start fast and make up ground.”
McIlroy has done a lot of living this decade. He had the breakup with Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, a breakup with his management team (including legal action), a monster endorsement contract with Nike (a reported $200 million in 2012 and a $100 million extension last year) and a relationship with a PGA of America employee, Erica Stoll, that led to marriage.
He also became very enamored of weightlifting, and just as Tiger Woods did in the mid-2000s got so hooked on it that it seemed he was more intrigued by sculpting his body than in honing his golf game.
Call it complacency, distractions or business, but at about the same time, he quit being a dominating figure in the game. An injury to his left ankle reportedly suffered in a soccer kick-around with friends in 2015 may have been the biggest roadblock of all.
His game is still impressive. His results are good, just not great. He’s got a lot to live up to because he set the bar so high. The clock ticks quickly. McIlroy is 29, and he was shocked when a PGA of America official told him that this week will be his 10th PGA Championship.
“The PGA seems to suit my style pretty well,” he conceded. “They’re modern layouts that reward good driving and ball-striking. From what I’ve seen, Bellerive does remind of Valhalla [site of his 2014 PGA victory], where there’s quite a lot of mounding. It’s a big, big, long golf course.”
Valhalla was the scene of McIlroy’s last major victory. You probably remember the finish in the dark when Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler were forced to allow McIlroy, playing in the final pairing, to hit up to the green before it got too dark to finish. A PGA of America official later apologized for the move, but McIlroy took advantage of it to make par and score his third straight victory.
Back in 2014, most observers figured McIlroy would have added at last two more major titles by now. Instead, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson have come of age and provided stiff competition. However, McIlroy has had issues with his putting at times. He’s not a great fast-greens putter, which will make winning a Masters for the career Grand Slam a challenge.
He also has had issues with his wedge play when approaching the green. Still, he has shown the talent to keep on winning, just not as often as in the past. Since 2016, he has three PGA Tour victories and one European Tour title. Good, but not quite great.
“From 2014, I’ve given myself some half-chances at majors,” McIlroy said. “My best chance since Valhalla was the Open at Carnoustie. In golf, you just have to be an eternal optimist. You have to see the positives and move on. That’s what I’ve tried to do. Turn up at the next tournament, and it’s a fresh start. This week’s a fresh start for me after what happened Sunday at Firestone. It’s another chance to win a golf tournament.”
In fact, this PGA almost looks made to order.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle