It was at a pre-tournament press conference last summer that someone started a question to Rory McIlroy this way: “Rory, you’re still young …”
McIlroy smiled and quickly added, “ish.”
There’s young and there’s youngish. McIlroy is extremely aware of the difference.
He turned 30 on Saturday, as he was reminded repeatedly while playing the third round of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club. Just as Phil Mickelson’s birthday almost always falls during U.S. Open week, McIlroy has celebrated quite a few birthdays during the past decade in Charlotte, N.C.
There’s some poetry in that coincidence of McIlroy’s life calendar and the golf calendar. McIlroy’s first PGA Tour victory came at Quail Hollow nine years ago—two days prior to his 21st birthday—when he shot a final-round 62, sending a clear message to the golf world that a new star was about to arrive.
This past weekend, the beginning of his fourth decade on earth was a mixed bag. On Saturday, amidst all the singing, he shot a third-round 68, which left him two shots behind the three leaders. On Sunday, his round fell apart around the turn. He was running in place at even par through eight holes when a bogey 5 at the ninth and a horrific double-bogey 7 on the 10th (brought on by two awful chips) knocked him out of contention for a third title in Charlotte—he also won there in 2015 with a bravura performance.
McIlroy managed to play the last eight holes one under par and finished with a 73 to wind up tied for eighth place, eight shots behind winner Max Homa. His second shot at 18 summed up the day—and the week—quite well. McIlroy hit a high draw that tracked the flag and looked as if it would end up 10 to 15 feet left of the hole with a makeable birdie putt. Instead, the ball continued to roll after landing and ended up just short of the creek left of the green, but with a reasonable chip.
Seeing where the ball came to rest, McIlroy heaved a deep, what-can-you-do sigh. After getting up-and-down for par, he stood hands on hips with a look on his face that said, Oh well, wasn’t meant to be this week.
At this moment in his golf life, McIlroy finds himself in a confusing place.
On the one hand, he’s playing remarkably consistent golf. He’s had nine starts in 2019 and has finished out of the top 10 in exactly one of them. He has a win—at the Players Championship—and a second at the WGC-Mexico Championship, and has earned more than $5 million. He’s third in the FedEx Cup standings—behind only two-time winners Matt Kuchar and Xander Schauffele—and has moved back up to fourth in the Official World Golf Rankings. Those are all impressive numbers.
Here’s the conundrum: The only finish outside the top 10 was at the Masters, where he never seriously contended and finished T-21, moving up to that spot after a final-round 68.
In his 20s, McIlroy did everything one can hope to do in golf: He won four majors; was ranked No. 1 in the world; played a key role on four winning Ryder Cup teams; became supremely rich and, through the force and charm of his personality, became as popular as any golfer on the planet.
Not a bad decade.
The one clear hole in that resume is the Masters.
It has now been eight years since McIlroy, a couple weeks shy of 22, led the Masters by four shots after 54 holes only to collapse with a Sunday 80. He handled that disappointment with remarkable class and maturity and, eight weeks later, won the U.S. Open by eight shots for his first major title.
He’s since added an Open Championship and two PGA Championship titles, leaving him only a green jacket shy of a career Grand Slam.
A year ago, he played his way into the final group at Augusta with a Saturday 65 only to shoot a disappointing 74 in the final round to finish T-5.
Has Augusta National become the elephant in the room of McIlroy’s life? Maybe. Maybe not.
The maybe was his demeanor on the weekend at Augusta this year. After a third-round 71 left him in a tie for 39th place, eight shots behind leader Francesco Molinari, he rolled his eyes and laughed when someone asked if he might have a miracle run in him on Sunday.
“Look at the leader board,” he said, gesturing at the giant board to the right of the 18th green that he could see from where he was standing. “Let’s be fair, it’s not happening.”
He went through all his media paces that day—TV, radio, U.S. media, overseas media—without complaint. But when he was finished, he turned, put his head down and walked quickly away, clearly not in a mood for any of the post-interview chatter he often engages in with reporters he knows well.
He had changed his pre-Masters schedule this year—passing on lucrative appearance fees in the Middle East on golf courses he always plays well—to focus on playing in the U.S. pre-Augusta. He had come into the tournament riding a wave of confidence after his victory at the Players, only to never really get going at the Masters when it mattered most.
Knowing he would have to wait another year for another shot at the Masters, was clearly—and understandably—upsetting.
That’s the maybe.
The maybe not is that he’s just turned 30 and is clearly playing excellent golf. He’s “only” won twice in the last two years, but he’s contended on an almost weekly basis. One has the sense that if can ever become a consistently good putter, rather than occasionally brilliant and sometimes mediocre, he can win a half-dozen times a year. More important, he appears capable of breaking his four-plus-year victory drought in the majors, dating to the 2014 PGA.
It’s worth noting that Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, the two greatest players in history, both had major-victory slumps at almost the exact same times in their careers as McIlroy. Nicklaus went three years—12 majors—from 1967 to 1970 without a win, the “slump” beginning when he was 27 and ending when he was 30. Woods went almost three years and 10 majors between victories from 2002 to 2005. His “slump” started when he was 26 and ended when he was 29.
McIlroy was 25 when he won the PGA at Valhalla in 2014 and has just turned 30. That’s a longer skein without a victory, but he’s being compared here to Woods and Nicklaus—an unfair comparison for any golfer 99 percent of the time.
McIlroy is one of those athletes whose Achilles heel might be that he’s not completely obsessed with winning. Don’t misunderstand: He’s hyper competitive and hates to lose and beats himself up when he doesn’t play well. But he’s also very bright and very thoughtful. He knows there’s more to life than winning golf tournaments and making money. He’s already done a lot of both.
He celebrated his second wedding anniversary recently, and it probably isn’t unfair to think he’ll be a father someday in the not-too-distant future. As he said after that final round collapse at Augusta eight year ago, “if this is the worst thing that ever happens to me in my life, I’ll have a pretty good life.” He gets it.
But it’s my belief that he’s too talented and driven—maybe not Woods or Nicklaus-driven but driven—to not start winning majors again soon.
And the Masters will happen for him someday. It might take shooting a course-record 62 on Saturday to build a big lead, or it might take a Nicklaus-like 30 on the back nine on Sunday to come from behind, but I believe it will happen.
Rory McIlroy has been and will continue to be fun to watch. His 20s might have been flawed, but they were spectacular. His 30s have the potential to be even better.