For those keeping count, this was Rory McIlroy’s 10th top-10 finish in a major championship since he last won one of golf’s four most important events, the 2014 PGA at Valhalla. That is an impressive number, of course. But it is also revealing. An immutable law of this infuriating sport at the highest level is that a superior long game like the one McIlroy owns will, more often than not, get a player into contention. But it is equally true that, should the subsequent putting be less than stellar, ultimate victory becomes all but impossible to achieve.
So this latest disappointment – it is a credit to McIlroy’s talent level that a T-6 finish in the 151st Open Championship at Royal Liverpool can be so labelled – is nothing new. We’ve seen this script before. Many times. Google “Rory McIlroy” and one of the first things to appear is a headline from the Daily Telegraph newspaper: “Rory McIlroy’s inconsistent putting holds him back at the Irish Open.” The story is dated July 2018.
By way of further high-profile example, last year at St Andrews, McIlroy shared the lead at the 150th Open heading into the final round, failed to drop a shot over the closing 18 holes and didn’t win. Putting for birdie on every green, he made only two. In the end, the four-time major champion lost by just two shots.
So this latest “failure” was, apart from the proximity to what would have been a second claret jug, a close facsimile of the 2022 Open. Even his press conference after the final round (a brief, four-question encounter) bore a close similarity to many previous chats between the now 34-year-old and the media.
“Solid performance,” McIlroy said of play that saw him improve by a shot each day (71-70-69-68). “I missed a few putts yesterday. Felt like I putted a bit better today. I made a big putt on 3 then followed that up with two well-played holes. But it was hard to keep anything going out there. The conditions were difficult and tricky. You can make birdies but I needed to go out and shoot something 63, 64-ish.
“I was very reluctant to hit the driver because the club face gets wet and the ball could go anywhere,” he continued. “Sort of had to lay back off tees and try to play as conservatively and as smart as possible. Overall, a solid performance, not spectacular, but a lot of optimism going into the rest of the year.”
Ah yes, the remainder of a year that contains shiny but lesser baubles has become a common refuge for McIlroy in the wake of major disappointment.
“My confidence is high,” he said. “I’m playing well off the win last week. This was another good performance. I want to win another FedEx Cup. There’s a Race to Dubai to win. And the Ryder Cup, which is the most important of them all. After what happened at Whistling Straits, both for me and the rest of the team, I don’t think we could be more motivated to go to Rome and get the trophy back. A lot of golf to play until then though.”
A closer examination of McIlroy’s play this week reveals he made 360 feet of putts over the course of 72 holes. That ranked 22nd in the field. Not terrible. But clearly not enough to make the difference between contention and conquest. As for the ever-revealing Strokes Gained categories, McIlroy ranked fifth overall, sixth off the tee, seventh in approach play, but 54th in putting and 75th in short game.
Given that numbers do not lie, despite the dodgy reputation enjoyed by statistics. Need we say more?
We do. It is hard to imagine that McIlroy is not, as he enters a 10th barren year of major championship play, at least veering towards torment whenever that touchy subject is raised. He makes all the right noises about staying patient and continuing to put himself into position until his turn to win comes round. His analysis of his play at the four majors this year hinted that he feels close to claiming a fifth major title.
“Augusta? Let’s forget about that,” he said of the missed cut he perpetrated in the Masters. “I didn’t have my best stuff at Oak Hill in the PGA, but pieced it together to finish seventh. Came close at LA in the US Open, but didn’t quite get the job done. This week, if it weren’t for one guy, I’d be right there. So I’m playing well. There’s nothing else I can really say. I just have to keep getting myself in there. At the end of my career am I going to remember my [T-6] finish at Hoylake? Probably not. But this was still a solid performance.”
Still, beneath that veneer of positivity, there must surely linger some doubt. What does the Belfast boy need to do to turn things round? It is obvious: he needs to putt better.
In that area, McIlroy has recently been taking advice from former PGA Tour player Brad Faxon. The 1993 Australian Open champion has long been hailed as one of the professional game’s finest exponents of the dark art. But he is not a coach as such. So there are those who watch and wonder if what passes between the pair is actually helping. Is the assumption that what worked for Faxon will work for McIlroy? If so, at best, the answer is “occasionally”.
Too often, we see what was much in evidence this past week. As he stands over a makeable putt, there is a palpable sense of McIlroy thinking hard. The natural instinct he displays so beautifully when wielding a driver is largely absent, replaced by an obvious need not to make a mistake, which is no way to putt. Fear of missing is death on the greens.
What comes next is anyone’s guess. So far we have seen McIlroy make a brief foray into a cross-handed grip. But there has been no sign of “the claw” or, heaven forbid, a long putter. Spare us that Rory, please. But let’s face it. There is always hope. If Brian Harman and Wyndham Clark can win majors, so, surely, can the most talented player in the game.