Has it really been four years since Rory McIlroy last won a major championship?
When said like that, it feels like an eternity. Worse yet, a slump. Some might consider it one given McIlroy’s enormous talent and how quickly he amassed his first four major titles, winning them all by age 25 and in a span of 15 majors between 2011 and 2015.
In reality, the 29-year-old has played 13 majors in the years since and has finished in the top 10 in eight of them, in the top five in four of them and contended in at least a few of them. That included at this year’s Masters, where many that afternoon expected that he would overcome a three-shot deficit to Patrick Reed on the final day and vanquish the Masters meltdowns and missed opportunities of yesteryear to become just the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam.
Still, four years ago you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who would have thought Rors would still be stuck on a quartet of majors. He won four times that year, including a major, a WGC and the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA, earned a career-best $5.88 million and finished the year No. 1 in the world.
McIlroy has won eight titles around the world since, including one earlier this year at Bay Hill, but his major total remains. By comparison, should Jordan Spieth—four-plus year’s McIlroy’s junior—win the PGA Championship later this summer, he’ll get to the Career Slam first, another proposition few would have taken in 2014, when Spieth had yet to win even one major.
This year, McIlroy had a chance to add to the total at Augusta but his putting never looked good from the moment he missed an 3-footer for eagle that went low and right on the par-5 second that would have pulled him even with Reed on Sunday. It was a familiar refrain in the year’s next major at Shinnecock Hills, where he missed the cut for the third straight U.S. Open. The poor performance rightly drew the attention of former European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley, who was working for Sky Sports as an analyst that week.
“There are definitely issues that need to be addressed,” he said. “He’s not the new kid on the block any more. When he was winning his majors, he was out on his own and drove the ball better than anyone else. But now there are five or six guys who can drive the ball as long and as straight as him. This is a new phase of his career and it’s going to take a new attitude and a new drive to go with it. That's what is missing.”
McIlroy’s chances last month at the U.S. Open should have been bolstered by a lengthy preparation. After tying for eighth at the Memorial, the Northern Irishman spent two weeks honing his game on a variety of Long Island’s upper crust courses, including the tournament host site, Shinnecock. Instead, he opened with an 80 and never made it to the weekend, despite a 10-shot turnaround the next day.
Later when asked if fours year felt like a long time ago, he said it didn’t. But he also admitted that he’d perhaps over-prepared for Shinnecock and said he plans to “wing it,” at least for the immediate future, when it comes to majors.
Translation: his preparation for Carnoustie included the Irish Open at Ballyliffin, a trip to Wimbledon, then to Queenwood outside London for the pro-member, and a stop at Royal County Down. He won’t turn up at The Open Championship until the Monday of tournament week.
“I'll just treat it like any other event,” McIlroy said. “Prepare the way I normally do and go out and play and see what happens. I'm not putting any pressure on myself. My record in the Open Championship's been pretty good the last few years.”
Indeed, it was at Carnoustie in 2007 where he announced his presence to the world. Playing in his first Open Championship, he shot 68 in the first round and was tied for third only three shots back before ultimately finishing in a tie for 42nd and as the low amateur.
“I know the course pretty well and know how it’s going to be,” he said of Carnoustie. “It’s tough but it’s fair. Birkdale was the same last year. The fairways were flat -- sometimes in links golf you feel like you hit a good drive down the middle of the fairway and the ball goes off one side or the other -- and Carnoustie seems you hit the ball where you think and it’s going to be good, a little like Birkdale.”
If McIlroy’s major drought is going to end, the Open Championship would be a decent bet. He’s already won one, at Royal Liverpool in 2014 when he took advantage of a soft golf course and had a six-stroke lead going into the last day. He has also finished in the top five in each of the last two years, to go with a tie for third at St. Andrews in 2010.
Still, he’ll need to putt better to have a chance, something he is keenly aware of if not reminded of all too often. Though he didn’t roll it particularly well at the Irish Open, an email from Brad Faxon, who has become something of a putting consultant to McIlroy, at least left him encouraged.
“He sent a couple of videos of my body language after all the missed putts this week so it was a good little reminder that attitude is important and it seemed to help [in the final round]," McIlroy told reporters at the Irish Open. “If I putt for four days at Carnoustie like I did today, I'd be happy.”
Another major, sooner than later, would feel pretty good, too.
“I remember the feeling and know what it’s like to win a major and how that feels,” McIlroy said. “I’d like to have that feeling again.”