Brooks Koepka wasn’t wrong in his blunt assessment last month about the competitive relationship between he and Rory McIlroy. As he often does, Koepka used the subtlety of a sledgehammer to note that McIlroy hasn’t won a major since Brooks has been on the PGA Tour. Yes, McIlroy (somehow) pipped him in the vote for PGA Tour Player of the Year. From Koepka’s perspective, though, it’s not about accolades and awards but tournament titles, specifically majors, to which Koepka has four in that time.
OK, so maybe there is no “rivalry” from Koepka’s viewpoint. As for the rest of us, well it sure looks like the makings of a grand clash between two of the most impressive golfers of this generation. If you don’t like the label rivalry, either, so be it. But the two are clearly going to be challenging each other for golf’s biggest prizes for the foreseeable future.
On Sunday, McIlroy won the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, defeating Xander Schauffele (while Koepka was back in Florida nursing an injured knee). McIlroy’s victory was his fourth in 2019 and second in his last six starts.
It also provided for some (not surprisingly) great perspective from the Northern Irishman.
“The four wins this year have been wonderful,” McIlroy said of his titles at the Players, RBC Canadian Open, Tour Championship and WGC-HSBC. “But more than that, I think it is the consistency that I’m bringing week in, week out. Even if I don’t have my best stuff, at least I give myself a chance. Even last week in Japan [at the Zozo Championship], finding something after a couple of days and go on to produce a high finish [T-3 after a so-so opening-round 72].”
He’s not wrong.
In 23 worldwide starts in 2019, McIlroy has 18 top-10 finishes. Only twice has he missed the cut this year (albeit one notable one at the Open Championship at Royal Portrush), his fewest number of weekends off since 2014, which also happens to be the last time he won a major.
The reason for the consistency?
“I think maybe more so than say when I first came out on tour, I try 100 percent over every shot, I think because I realize I don’t have as much time left as I used to when I was 20,” McIlroy said. “My concentration is better, and my mental capacity on the golf course is much better than it ever has been, and I think that’s a big key to why I’m able to play consistently week in, week out.”
The first part is true in a literal sense of course, though it is funny to hear Rory say that he doesn’t have as much time left in the game now, considering he’s only 30. It used to be that a lot of players didn’t peak until their 30s, offering McIlroy reason to think his best is still to come. Then Tiger Woods and the generation that followed his came along. Now players are winning sooner than ever.
Still, history shows that much, if not most, success comes in those “middle” years of a career. The 30s is the decade when Arnold Palmer won 44 of his 62 PGA Tour titles, Ben Hogan won 43 of 64, Jack Nicklaus won 38 of 73 and Tiger won 33 of 82, a total that would surely be higher if not for a litany of injuries and personal issues.
Sunday’s win by McIlroy was his third since turning 30 in May of this year.
The second part of McIlroy’s comments about his concentration on the golf course being the best of his career is also spot on.
In Shanghai, McIlroy played bogey-free golf over his final 39 holes and closed with a four-under 68. It took a superb effort by a flu-stricken Schauffele, who birdied two of his final four holes, including the 18th, to chase him down. and even then it wasn’t enough. McIlroy smoked a driver down the fairway on the same hole in the playoff, hit 4-iron to 25 feet and two-putted for birdie and the victory.
McIlroy had similarly impressive performances at the Tour Championship, where he avenged a loss to Koepka at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude the month before, and at the Players, where two late birdies capped a final-round 70 and led to a one-stroke victory.
No longer does he seem to be making the same mental mistakes that cost him more titles in recent years.
“Over the last [few] years, I feel for the most part, and there’s been times where I haven’t, but for the most part, I’ve been able to get the best out of myself when I’ve needed it, and that’s been a learning curve for me,” McIlroy said on Sunday. “That’s something that didn’t come quite as naturally to me at the start of my career. But I’ve had enough experience, and I’ve got a lot of great memories to draw back on.”
During the last few years, though, he’s also had injuries, equipment changes and life changes, with his very public split from tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, followed by his marriage to Erica Stoll in 2017. Healthy, and settled on and off the course, however, McIlroy’s best years might be upon us.
Along with that rivalry with Koepka.
“I’m excited for the future,” McIlroy said. “I feel like this year compares to 2014, 2015, but I don’t see any reason why I can’t go ahead and have an even better year next year.”