Can Rory McIlroy battle out of his slump to end his major drought?

Rory McIlroy has played some of his best golf for years during the game’s civil war, and has stood up to fight for the soul of the sport, but can the World No 3 battle out of his slump to end his major drought?

  • Rory McIlroy has suffered an alarming drop off in form in the last 10 weeks
  • In his past three strokeplay events he has missed the cut at Masters and Players’
  • McIlroy returned on his 34th birthday after a break for his ’emotional well-being’

As the crow flies, it is about 100 miles from Niagara Falls to Oak Hill Country Club, where the US PGA Championship will play out this week.

If we are to use that as an avenue to easy symbolism, then wonder which is sharper: the drop over the edge of the old waterfall, or the one in Rory McIlroy’s form across the past 10 weeks.

This is a strange era for golf and an unfamiliar time for a man who, on his day, has more than a decent claim to being its finest player. Alas, there haven’t been enough of those recently, beyond his run to the semi-final of the WGC MatchPlay six weeks ago. 

In his past three strokeplay events he has missed the cut at The Masters and The Players’ Championship, with his weekend participation at the Wells Fargo last weekend only possible because he survived the cull by a single shot.

This being McIlroy, one would safely assume the funk will expire far sooner than later. ‘It is a blip and nothing more,’ the former European Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance told Mail on Sunday this week. Most of reasonable judgement would make him right. 

Rory McIlroy has experienced a quite remarkable slump in form over the past 10 weeks

McIlroy has missed cuts at The Masters and The Players’ Championship in his last three strokeplay events

Question marks hang over his head as to whether his often one-man crusade against LIV has hurt him in the long-term

But nonetheless there is a semi-urgent question of which version of the world No 3 will be present at the year’s second major in Rochester, upstate New York.

Four days out, that is tough to answer, given McIlroy’s public comments have been so limited since he departed Augusta without speaking to media, social or otherwise, and then did likewise after his underwhelming tie for 47th at Quail Hollow.

In between, he said enough about the emotional toil of Augusta, and the broader strain of co-ordinating the PGA Tour’s response to LIV, that it would seem he succumbed to exhaustion at precisely the wrong time. The candle burnt at both ends for the better part of 12 months and it is unfortunate that McIlroy has been singed just as the majors roll in.

‘He has been involved in a lot of stuff away from the course, and he has done great work with that,’ Torrance added.

‘What we saw at Augusta will have been a big blow for him. The amount of preparation he will have done, and how well he had been playing, will have meant it hurt a lot that the week went that way.

‘But these guys are a different breed. He took some time to switch off and it really would not surprise if he has a great week at Oak Hill. Not in the slightest.’

It should be remembered that some of McIlroy’s best golf in years has been played during this civil war period – three wins on the PGA Tour, another on the European circuit, and the season-ending No 1 on both. That in addition to excellent finishes of second, eighth, fifth and third at the 2022 majors.

There were moments in the run when he appeared energised by a mission beyond hitting balls – hitting out at Greg Norman seemed almost as fun, and there was no disputing he thrived.

His battling for the soul of golf was admired by many inside and out of the game but he could have suffered burnout 

Nobody did not enjoy the sniping that occurred between McIlroy and nemesis Patrick Reed

Within all that, there was some media complicity, of course – the more he gave on LIV, the more we asked the LIV questions, and always the answers were fascinating, spanning a couple of particularly memorable press conferences at separate tournaments in Dubai. 

During one, he said peace could not be brokered until Norman departed and allowed an ‘adult in the room’. 

In the other, he willingly provided the backdrop to his tee-gate row with the LIV rebel Patrick Reed, including the details of a Christmas Eve subpoena. Not many honest journalists could say we would have rather heard about the chips and putts.

As a golfer and talker, McIlroy has proven himself as a figure with few equals, but there are those who would argue his game might have benefitted from fewer injections of heart and impulse. 

On a similar theme, there are many who believe the PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan could have spared the Northern Irishman some of the burden by being more visible during this time.By his admission, McIlroy is now paying for his political contributions, so it is only for him to know if, on balance, the extracurriculars have been worth it. 

For all he has gained financially from the Tour restructuring, and by extension the whole LIV ruckus, it is tempting to think back to a players’ advisory committee meeting that McIlroy attended ahead of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in early March. It lasted seven hours. McIlroy was second that week, but the path to burnout can be short with that level of obligation.

As ever, discussions around McIlroy will be shaped by his broader pursuit of major titles and he is forever reminded it has been nine years since his fourth and most recent success.

Similarly, he will know the statistical peak age for a major-winning golfers is 32 and he is now 34. That is six years older than Jon Rahm and eight older than Scottie Scheffler, the two other kings in golf’s current deck.

There is no disputing McIlroy – a great talker – thrived in hitting out at Greg Norman (R)

McIlroy has admitted he is now paying for his political contributions – only he will know if it has been worth it

To use age against McIlroy feels like terribly flawed logic, given his form from April onwards last year. But you can wonder about his accumulation of scar tissue, and in the more immediate sense his current dip is striking. That is particularly evident through his waywardness off the tee, which saw him hit only 20 out of 56 fairways all week at Quail Hollow.

Worryingly, there doesn’t appear to be a consistent miss, either – as with Augusta, some are pulling left and others are blocking right, so the tweaked driver following the Players Championship has not proved to be the full fix. It is notable also that having switched recently to a Scotty Cameron blade putter he then reverted to a mallet style with no obvious success at the Wells Fargo.

If there is encouragement, it is that McIlroy is a member of Oak Hill and considers the area a second home as his wife is from Rochester. The layout is familiar to him and expected to be favourable, owing to the 2019 redesign that lengthened the course to 7,400 yards and removed hundreds of trees.

Even with lusher rough in that area at this time of year, the layout might be kinder to a bomber like McIlroy than in previous years. Writing him off would be a mistake, but talking him up carries more risks than usual.

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