Rory McIlroy's 2019 was as entertaining as it was amazing
Rory McIlroy is blessed with a curse. He can make golf, an impossible game, look impossibly easy. It is a marvel, the catalyst for his immense popularity. It is also the bane of his existence, for anything short of this stupidly high bar is viewed as a disappointment. (That sound you hear is Tiger Woods nodding.)
The last year was the perfect case study for this phenomenon. McIlroy won four times in three countries, had 19 top-10 finishes in 25 worldwide appearances, captured the PGA Tour Player of the Year award and finished with the best strokes gained figure by anyone not named Woods. A Hall of Fame season if there ever was one. He also failed to win a major for the fifth consecutive year, had a spectacular, ultimately inspiring flameout in his highly anticipated return to Royal Portrush, battled countless inquisitions on his mental toughness, and engaged in a bizarre tug-of-war with the European Tour. When dealing with Rory, there are only extremes.
Which is why we've created the Rory Overreaction Scale, or "RORS" for short, to relive his 2019. One residing close to rationality, 10 on the side of fanaticism. (There's a reason we are called "fans," after all.) So join us as we review the spectacular highs and lows of Rory's roller coaster year.
Jan. 3-6: The Sunday scaries re-emerge
Playing in the Sentry Tournament of Champions for the first time, McIlroy enters Sunday in the final group. McIlroy proceeds to shoot a 72, the worst score of any player in the top 20 (of a 33-man field), finishing eight shots behind winner Xander Schauffele. Coming off a 2018 finished with high-profile shortcomings, the belief that McIlroy has become a poor crunch-time player grows.
RORS: 8/10. It was a poor effort, but A) McIlroy didn't lose the event as much as Schauffele won it, with the X-Man shooting a 62, B) It's the first tournament of the year and C) Of greater concern is Rory curiously speaking with an American accent at the start of the week, the tapes of which have all been destroyed. Makes sense; the U.K. is having a tough enough time as is without its best golfer Brexiting as well.
Jan. 24-27: Questions Ho-song Choi; strong showing at Torrey Pines
Following a so-so opening start, McIlroy turns in three sub-70 rounds to finish T-5 at the Farmers Insurance Open, albeit seven strokes back of winner Justin Rose. Still, an impressive display for his first tour of Torrey Pines. But of greater note is McIlroy's honest response to Ho-song Choi, the viral sensation who would make his Tour debut the following week at Pebble Beach, stating he doesn't know if Choi deserves a spot in the AT&T field. "He's obviously a pretty good player," McIlroy said. "Whether that means he should be taking a spot away from a PGA Tour player at a PGA Tour event, I'm not so sure." McIlroy also says Choi appears to be trying too hard, which is the understatement of the year.
RORS: 3/10. A few folks on social media—tough crowd, that social media—weren't happy about Rory's Choi comments. But he clearly wasn't wrong in his assessment.
Feb. 14-24: Top fives in Los Angeles, Mexico; out of Irish Open
Grouping these events together because there wasn't anything particularly distinguishable from a fourth-place finish at the Genesis Open and a runner-up at the WGC-Mexico. Obviously good performances, but was never really in contention at either. But for those keeping track at home, that's four straight top-five finishes to start the year ... also of note, Rory says he won't play in the Irish Open, an event he previously hosted.
RORS: 2/10. "I'm going to make decisions that are the best thing for me," McIlroy says on Irish Open. "If that upsets anyone, then I'm sorry, that's not my problem, that's their problem." That all of Ireland didn't jump off a cliff after this is a testament to Irish fortitude.
March 3-10: Sunday struggles come to a head
Bay Hill marked the ninth time in 13 months that McIlroy was in final group of a tournament. And after a Sunday 72, McIlroy was 0-for-9 in bringing home a trophy. McIlroy said he didn't play that badly, and to his credit, most of the final groups at the Arnold Palmer Invitational labored to the finish line. Nevertheless, the "Rory can't close" cries reach their fever pitch.
RORS: 2/10. Fans are too quick, too eager, to qualify a shortcoming as mental fragility. Conversely, this wasn't an overreaction. Making nine final pairings in 13 months indicates an incredible run of golf. That it wasn't translating to Sunday (through a third of the tour season, McIlroy ranked 115th in fourth-round scoring) showed something was clearly afoot.
March 14-17: Sawgrass triumph
The "Coffee's for closers" criticism had validity. It was also criticism that McIlroy answered in resounding fashion at the Players Championship. Against the sport’s toughest field on its most fickle course, Rory shot a final-round 70 as his competition fizzled, winning the Tour's flagship event by one over Jim Furyk. He now had six consecutive top-six finishes, ostensibly setting the stage for a Tiger-like season in the making.
RORS: 8/10. The same writers and fans who had buried the poor guys day before were now talking about the Grand Slam in earnest. An about-face so severe that it could have sent some to the ER for whiplash. But it's hard not to get riled up about McIlroy's performance, especially against mounting criticism.
March 27-30: Takes on, and loses to, Tiger
McIlroy continued his tour-de-force display by going undefeated in pool plat the WGC-Dell Match Play, setting up a Sweet 16 match-up with Tiger Woods. But a handful of poor chips and some inconsistent putting give the match to Tiger.
RORS: 4/10. Hey, the "vagaries" of match play happen. More was made about McIlroy blowing off reporters than his play, which admittedly wasn't the greatest look for Rory. But if that's his biggest crime then call that man a saint.
April 11-14: Momentum stops at Masters
Rory will have to wait another year to don that elusive green jacket, as a 73-71 start puts McIlroy well out of contention. A nice Sunday (68) bumps McIlroy into the top 25, but this was as forgettable as McIlroy has been at Augusta in years.
RORS: N/A. McIlroy may be one of the most powerful planets in golf's galaxy, but it's a galaxy that continues to revolve around one sun.
May 2-5: Promising start, iffy finish in Charlotte
Winning the Players bequeaths a grace period of sorts, so not too much was made about another rocky final round (73) that dropped McIlroy from contention (two shots back to start the day) to eighth place (eight strokes behind). Still, not exactly how we wanted to spend his 30th birthday. We're referring to being in Charlotte, not his Sunday round. (We kid. Kind of.)
RORS: 2/10. The level of overreaction restraint was endearing.
May 9: Rory reverses course on Euro Tour
After indicating to reporters in November he might be surrendering his European Tour membership to compete in the United States full-time, McIlroy decides to officially re-up with the Old World circuit ahead of the May deadline. McIlroy plays a truncated Euro schedule, but global crisis is avoided.
RORS: 3/10. The Euro Tour stated McIlroy risked his future Ryder Cup captaincy had he not joined. A threat that had the same probability as Queen Elizabeth streaking across the Swilcan Bridge.
May 16-19: A top-10 finish at Bethpage
The good: At the PGA Championship, McIlroy turns in another top-10 finish, his ninth in 11 starts on the season. The bad: Essentially, his finish was off the backdoor variety, needing a back-nine 31 just to make the cut. The ugly: His short game, owning a negative strokes gained/putting figure in each of the first three rounds.
RORS: 6/10. The epitome of good Rory, bad Rory. He led the field in strokes gained/off-the-tee in Round 1, hit 15 greens—one more than Koepka, tied for second-most—and was NINE STROKES BACK of Brooks after 18 holes. Those ratios remained in Round 2 and McIlroy dropped further behind (15 strokes). Fair or not, the incontrovertible fact is good short game players are given a pass for mediocre tee balls, while the inverse skillset is held to a higher standard.
May 30-31: Missed cut at Murifield Village
Two reloads and another bout with his putter lead to a first-round 75 and quick exit at the Memorial. He can't get things right on Day 2, missing the cut for the first time in 2019.
RORS: 3/10. Yes, there was chirping about his putting, but even the most irrational fan realizes a bad week is bound to happen. And since there's nothing else to add, as an Ohioan, let me set the record straight that the best milkshake in the Buckeye State belongs to Graeter's, not Jack Nicklaus' Premium Ice Cream.
June 6-9: Rory laps the field in Canada
There would be no Sunday shortcoming Up North. Sharing the lead with Webb Simpson and Matt Kuchar heading into the final round, McIlroy flirted with 59, ultimately signing for a 61 that delivered a seven-shot win at the RBC Canadian Open. Just as importantly, McIlroy ended a streak of seven times he failed to win when starting the final round in the last pairing. “I don’t know what golf course Rory is playing today," Shane Lowry said, "but it was just incredible."
RORS: 10/10. In fairness, it would be weird if there wasn't overreaction to a near 59 the day before the U.S. Open.
June 13-16: Rory makes run, but comes up empty at Pebble
Since his breakthrough win at the 2011 U.S. Open, McIlroy had struggled mightily at the tournament, with a sole top-20 finish and four missed cuts. So in spite of the wet, tame conditions, it was still a surprise to see McIlroy at T-4 strutting into the weekend at Pebble (or as surprising as one can be at a player who shot 61 five days before.) But McIlroy fails to take advantage of the par 5s and can't muster a charge, finishing eight shots back of Gary Woodland.
RORS: 6/10. The weekend mostly lacked histrionics, a sentiment partially fueled by McIlroy's standing-put, low-voltage play. In his defense, this tournament historically calls for steadiness, but in his position, McIlroy needed to play the role of swashbuckler.
July 18: Shoots 79 in Round 1 at Royal Portrush
After a middling appearance at the Scottish Open, McIlroy returns to Northern Ireland for its first Open since 1951. And with a nation's hopes on his shoulders, the cheers from the grandstands had barely died when McIlroy’s tournament followed suit. On the first hole at Royal Portrush, McIlroy pulled his tee shot, his ball hitting a fan and bouncing out-of-bounds. It was a quadruple bogey, setting the tone for an eight-over 79 opening round.
RORS: SYSTEM OVERLOAD. Twitter was flooded with sports psychologist. McIlroy said he didn't feel nervous on the first tee, but you can’t distort the obvious. Before the Open, McIlroy had played in more than 160 tournaments—well over 10,000 holes—in his tour career. He made a quadruple-bogey four times in that span. That infamous 8 could have been really, really bad timing. In a way, it was. That doesn’t make it a coincidence.
July 19: Rory bounces back with 65, misses cut
Even in his shortcoming, McIlroy shined. At this level of the sport, you have to do something pretty special to make Friday memorable. The way McIlroy battled following that disastrous opening provided a moment that will endure beyond that week in July. “There's a lot of them,” McIlroy said, choking up, when asked what his emotions were afterward. “As much as I came here at the start of the week saying I wanted to do it for me, you know, by the end of the round there today I was doing it just as much for them as I was for me. I wanted to be here for the weekend. Selfishly, I wanted to feel that support for two more days.”
RORS: 1/10. Even in this era of hyperbole and amplification, it's not possible to oversell how cool of a moment this proved to be.
July 25-28: Sunday, she is a mysterious beast
McIlroy may have thought he buried his Sunday demons in Canada. They came barreling out of the grave in Memphis. Entering Sunday with a one-stroke lead, McIlroy shot a one-over 71 to Koepka's five under 65 to lose the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational by five. As an extra dagger, Koepka rolled up to the course with just 45 minutes to go before tee time.
RORS: 7/10. If only for the litany of "Koepka was late but Rory didn't show up at all" jokes.
Aug. 8-18: T-6 at Northern Trust, T-19 at the BMW Championship
You're still following along? Wow, you are a trooper ... the T-6 at Liberty National is his 13th top 10 in 17 starts on the season.
RORS: 5/10. Two things of note: At Liberty, McIlroy drops an all-time burn on Kuchar, and took such an absurd line at the BMW Championship that he confused the heck out of a marshal.
Aug. 22-25: Wins the Tour Championship, FedEx Cup
On a course where he was collateral damage to Tiger-mania 11 months before, McIlroy shoots a final-round four-under 66—six better than Koepka—to take the Tour Championship. "I really wanted to go out there and play well and really take it to [Brooks], and I did that for the most part," McIlroy said.
RORS: 12/10. Sure, it was a 30-man field. But getting told you can't finish on Sundays for 18 months, only to do it with $15 million on the line, is a pretty stout **** YOU from Rory.
Aug. 29-Sept. 1: Runner-up at Omega European Masters
McIlroy proves that jet-lag is made up, shooting an opening-round 67 and following suit with a Friday 63 in Switzerland. McIlroy ends up losing in a five-man playoff after a sloppy finish (three bogeys on final five holes), putting the cap on seven tournaments in an eight-week stretch.
RORS: 1/10. While extremely impressive, history will remember Rory's 2019 European Masters for his tangle with paragliders.
Sept. 11: Rory upsets Brooks for POY
“[Brooks] had a great season. He's won another major, he's won three times," McIlroy said following his victory in East Lake. "And I know it's going to sting because he most likely will win the Player of the Year, but he didn't win the FedEx Cup." Well, Koepka didn't win POY, either. In a shock, the players vote for McIlroy. It is the first time in 28 years the PGA Tour and PGA of America Player of the Year (which is based on points) awards haven't gone to the same golfer.
RORS: 9/10. Say this as one who respects the talents of both Koepka and McIlroy: I am very much looking forward to the 2029 Netflix conspiracy theory documentary on the 2019 Player of the Year vote.
Sept. 30: Frustration with Euro Tour grows
McIlroy rips into the European Tour's course set-ups, calling them too easy. "I’m sort of honestly sick of coming back over to the European Tour and shooting 15 under par and finishing 30th," he said after the Dunhill Links. "There are no penalties for bad shots. It’s tough when you come back and it’s like that. I don’t feel like good golf is regarded as well as it could be."
RORS: 7/10. We posted a satire piece following these remarks claiming it was "clear" that McIlroy was defecting to the United States. Apparently parody gets lost over the Atlantic, because boy, did we receive some angry threats.
Oct. 24—Nov. 3: Asian dominance
Rory opens the new PGA Tour season with a T-3 at the inaugural Zozo Championship in Japan, then defeats Schauffele—the guy who beat him at the Tournament of Champions—in a playoff to win the WGC-HSBC. Rory explains the impetus for his sensational year with a cathartic concession. “I think maybe moreso than when I first came out on TOUR, I try 100% over every shot, because I realize I don't have as much time left as I used to when I was 20,” McIlroy said. “Even if I'm having a bad day, I'm trying over every single shot."
RORS: 7/10. The usual Rory fervor was slightly deflated due to the time difference and fact that some cat won his 82nd career tournament the week before.
Nov. 21-24: "Shot of the Year
McIlroy comes in fourth at the Euro Tour's DP World Tour Championship. While he stumbled on the weekend, he still manages to submit his "shot of the year," a 286-yard 3-wood that finishes five feet from the pin. "I usually carry my 3-wood about 280 yards off the deck," McIlroy said. "It was right on the limit, but as soon as I hit it I knew it was perfect."
RORS: 13/10. Forget the Grand Slam; will Rory McIlroy win every tournament he enters in 2020?