ORLANDO – Not long before Jack Nicklaus won the 1986 Masters, the crowning achievement to his unparalleled career in major championships, Lee Trevino was begging anyone who would listen to him to not agitate the Golden Bear about his latest victory drought.
“Leave him alone,” Trevino was quoted as saying. “Please, leave him alone. When the Bear is asleep you don’t wake him up. You wake him up and get clawed to pieces.”
Trevino’s warning came to mind Wednesday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. Justin Rose, the No. 2 player in the world, was asked about the ongoing frustrations Rory McIlroy was encountering the last few years and, in particular, the last two months when the four-time major champion has posted top-five finishes in each of his last four starts but remains without a victory since he won this event a year ago with a lightning-in-a-can (of iced tea and lemonade) final-round 64.
That win, by the way, ended an 18-month drought for the native of Northern Ireland, whom Rose said can make winning look easy. Of course, that’s when winning came easy. But with a mere two titles in 30 months, the only thing that comes easy for McIlroy right now are moral victories. “Little personal wins,” he called them.
Like it or not, little wins are things you take away from losses.
“The great thing about Rory – when you're competing against him not the great thing – but when he's questioned he kind of somehow snaps into a gear and proves a lot of people wrong,” said Rose, who played with McIlroy in that final round last year here at Bay Hill Club. “He's done that through his career a couple of times. So, I'm going to be careful about saying too much.”
What great player isn’t questioned when he appears to not be fulfilling his promise or when he has encountered a slump? Hasn’t Dustin Johnson, who recently reclaimed the world No. 1 ranking, faced the question constantly because he owns just one major title and a slew of inexplicable near-misses? Isn’t that Jordan Spieth’s burden after a winless 2018 and sub-par start to this season? Isn’t a question mark permanently affixed to the career of Greg Norman?
For his part, McIlroy, one of the most earnest interview subjects in the game, won’t be cowed into taking the bait of admitting any frustration. The word was uttered several times Wednesday on the eve of the 40th anniversary of this event at Palmer’s Bay Hill, but never by the Ulsterman.
“Obviously, the ultimate goal is to win tournaments, yes, but that's, there's little mini goals that you need to set yourself within those weeks, and for the most part every time I've teed it up this week I've achieved those,” he said. “But it's tough to win on tour. It's the nature of what we do. We’re playing in a very competitive environment with the best players in the world, and you sometimes feel like you'll play well and you just didn't play well enough or someone will play better. So, I'm very happy with where everything is.
“It's about trying to take the little personal wins,” he continued. “Leaving the golf course whether it be in Mexico or Riviera or Torrey Pines, I left happy. Even though I didn't win the golf tournament, I left happy with where my game was when I left and was in the frame of mind that it was step in the right direction. So that's all I can really do.”
In his last start, at the WGC-Mexico Championship, McIlroy, ranked No. 6 in the world, missed some early opportunities to apply heat to Johnson, the eventual winner, but he finished with a flourish to shoot 16-under 268, a score that would have won at Club de Golf Chapultepec in 2017 and gotten him in a playoff last year. Instead, he lost by three.
“He's obviously got that type of game that when he wins it looks so easy that you think, ‘Why aren't you doing this week in week out?’ But we all know that golf isn't that way,” Rose said of his Ryder Cup teammate. “There's many aspects that go into winning it's not just looking comfortable on the golf course or swinging the club beautifully, you got to make putts here and there and he ran into D.J. obviously in Mexico. … Clearly, he's played well enough to win a golf tournament, it's just you run into the wrong guy on the wrong week. So, he's doing a lot of good things. If I was Rory I would basically be telling myself to be patient and keep focusing on what I'm doing and keep creating the chances, but one win in 12 months is not going to be acceptable for Rory, for sure.”
It’s particularly not acceptable for a guy who broke the U.S. Open scoring record in 2011 and won by as record eight strokes in the 2012 PGA Championship. He added the 2014 Open Championship and the PGA as part of three straight victories that summer. Since then, he enjoyed an epic playoff burst to capture the FedEx Cup title in 2016, capped by victory in the Tour Championship, but since then all he has is one feel-good moment last March that appeared to augur a big year.
Instead, he got outplayed by Patrick Reed the following months to add to his string of disappointments at the Masters – “four,” he pointed out, obviously keeping track of his best chances at Augusta National – and ended up in a second-place logjam in the Open at Carnoustie two strokes behind Francesco Molinari.
Since the start of 2018, McIlroy is 0-for-8 playing in the final group of the final round. Granted, he trailed in most of them, but of his 13 stroke-play victories on the PGA Tour, seven came from trailing after 54 holes. Same for many of his nine European Tour titles.
With another Masters approaching and his quest for the career grand slam still unfulfilled, McIlroy has to assess whether he would rather have a win before the year’s first major or be content with more tournaments simply being in contention.
“I think I just go back to like good golf is good golf,” he replied. “So probably getting in, having chances to win. Obviously, the more chances you have, the more chances you're going to have of getting over that line. If I just keep the form that I'm on, I would be happy with that.”
Most people would be. But does one of this era's most talented golfer want to feel happy or does he want to feel fulfilled?
“Yeah, again, if I'm on this path, which I think I am, to becoming a better golfer and a better player,” he said, “and having a better mindset and trying to come to terms better with perceived losses, whether they be second place, third place, fourth place, if someone were to tell me you have to go through 12 or 18 months or 24 months of this but come out the other side of it and you will have those five-win seasons, six-win seasons, these 12, 18, 24 months will have been worth it.
“So again, it's trying to get away from being results-oriented and be more focused on the process and on the present and just trying to be better,” he added. “I feel like I'm on that path to improvement and becoming a better golfer and I can feel I'm a better golfer right now than I was a couple years ago. I might have won more a couple years ago, but I feel like I'm putting things in place to get to a point where I'll get back to those four-win, five-win, six-win seasons. But you can't just turn it on like that.
“If I keep working on these things and keep doing the right things, hopefully, sooner or later, I'll turn all these good finishes into a win.”
The Masters would be the best place to start, but, frankly, anywhere would be a good place to start. And any time now.