[PHOTO: Gregory Shamus]

Even in a season dominated by Scottie Scheffler on the golf course (and, in one notable case, off the course), Rory McIlroy has been hard to ignore. He seems to be front and centre in the ongoing PGA Tour/LIV Golf negotiations, boomeranging between the Player Advisory Council and the new transaction committee, his positions seeming to shift, at least subtly, all the while.

But with the focus on his off-course activities and Scheffler’s dominance in actual events, it’s easy to forget that McIlroy is still a high-level player who wins tournaments (including his brilliant final round at the Wells Fargo, when he decimated soon-to-be-major-winner Xander Schauffele) and contends in majors. He’s been particularly good at the US Open, with five straight top-10s, including a second last year at Los Angeles Country Club.

In his press conference at Pinehurst overnight (Australian time), he told the gathered media that he may be on the verge of a breakthrough, having gone winless in majors since the 2014 PGA at Valhalla.

“Obviously, getting my hands on a fifth major has taken quite a while,” he said, “but I’m more confident than ever that I’m right there, that I’m as close as I’ve ever been.”

Prior to his top-10 streak at US Opens, McIlroy missed three straight cuts, and he said the change came down to “reframing” his mindset.

“I would say embracing the difficult conditions, embracing the style of golf needed to contend at a US Open, embracing patience,” he said, listing off the adjustments that made him a great US Open golfer. “Embracing what I would have called ‘boring’ back in the day. Explosiveness isn’t going to win a US Open. It’s more methodically building your score over the course of four days and being OK with that.”

McIlroy knows he can’t escape the dominant narrative of the past decade of his career, which is that after amassing four majors by age 25, he sits at that same total at age 35, and in that span has managed to lose seemingly winnable majors in a variety of ways. While acknowledging that he wants to break through, some of McIlroy’s words overnight reflected that same attitude of embracing adverse conditions.

“Tiger wanted to surpass Jack. It looks like he mightn’t get there, but are we going to call Tiger’s career a failure? Absolutely not. It’s arguably the best,” he said. “There’s always going to be that tinge of what could have been. I don’t want to do that to myself. If someone would have told me at 20 years old, I’d be sitting here at 35 and this is the career I’ve had, I would not have believed them, and I would have been ecstatic.”

Of course, as a human like the rest of us, McIlroy has been forced to take the short view – four majors after 15 years might have looked wonderful when he was 18, but comes with that shadow of regret when it was already four a decade ago. But even as he accepts what his life is, he’s not giving up on greater achievements.

“I still like to think I’ve got a good run ahead of me,” he said. “Whatever those numbers are, whatever the totals add up to, I’ll accept that and feel like I’ve done pretty well for a little boy from Northern Ireland that dreamed of playing golf for a living one day.”