Rise of Rory: How McIlroy is pushing his way back to top of the world

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It’s over five years since Rory McIlroy holed the winning putt at a dark Valhalla and shook his fist to the vocal Kentucky crowd to celebrate his fourth major triumph. Cameras snapped endlessly to catch that first picture of the boy wonder. The player everyone expected to dominate a new era for world golf.

At 25 and the third-youngest player to collect four majors, many believed the Northern Irishman would light up the next decade with his searing confidence, composure in pressure situations and overall class.

He would finish the 2014 season as world number one, and return to his base in Holywood – 15 minutes outside of Belfast – full of belief as to what the next stage of his burgeoning career held.

However, sport can throw up all sorts of surprises and quite often the narrative can change. Over five years on from that day in Valhalla, McIlroy has not tasted major success since that point, but does have 12 more wins to his name, and, more pointedly, currently sits second in the world rankings.

For all the column inches and hours filled in sport chat shows worldwide about McIlroy’s ‘loss’ in form over the years, and whether he could scale those same heights from 2014, the reality is golf is a far more competitive environment than when he captured his first major at the 2011 US Open.

Before, McIlroy could blow away the field playing at 90 per cent, whereas now, more golfers are playing the game in the same swashbuckling manner as he had over previous years.

But, for all the success that promised him, what happened from 2014 to now for the 30-year-old?

JOURNEY FROM 2015-2018

Fresh from his stunning 2014 season when he lifted two majors, McIlroy enjoyed a blistering start to 2015, winning the Dubai Desert Classic, WGC-Cadillac Match Play and the Wells Fargo Championship in the opening five months of the year.

Rupturing ankle ligaments, while playing football with friends, ruled him out of two months of action, including missing the Open Championship at St. Andrews.

There were gradual improvements after his ankle healed and, for what he may describe as a mixed season, the world No3 capped off the year with a sublime victory at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, for his third Race to Dubai crown in four years.

In 2016, it took McIlroy until May to taste his first win of the season, beating Bradley Dredge by three shots to secure the Irish Open at the K Club.

On the major front, he finished in a tie for 10th at the Masters and in a tie for fifth at the Open Championship, but missed the cut at the US Open and PGA Championship.

Other notable performances of the campaign, included victories at the Deutsche Bank Championship and the Tour Championship. Some serious rounds produced but, for a competitive beast like McIlroy, it’s all about success at the majors and playing consistent golf.

The following season, it was a winless and underwhelming campaign which saw him drop from second to 11th in the world rankings. However, on a personal front, he married his long-term girlfriend Erica Stoll at a lavish ceremony in Ireland.

On the playing front, a rib injury created a great source of frustration, not least due to his inability to put in his normal elevated levels of training but also to hit big shots on the driving range.

The split with his caddie of eight years, JP Fitzgerald, in August 2017 captured the headlines for obvious reasons, but perhaps it was one of the changes McIlroy needed to make in order to drive on again in the next phase of his career.

McIlroy had won four majors and 26 worldwide titles with Fitzgerald on his bag. The two were together through thick and thin, good times and bad. It seemed an odd decision at the time.

Maybe McIlroy felt the change was needed after three years of non-major victories, a drop in form, and just general unhappiness about different ongoings in his career at the time. You can’t fault somebody for wanting a change.

McIlroy turned to his best friend Harry Diamond, who grew up playing at Holywood Golf Club, and was talented enough to represent Ireland at underage level.

Not only does Diamond bring a calming influence on McIlroy, but it’s a happiness of having a great friend, trusted companion, passionate golfer and someone whose presence is easily felt when walking down the fairway.

And after nearly a decade competing on the professional circuit, a more settled outlook on life, a new caddie and other changes off the course, has surely sparked back that freshness into his game.

The 2018 campaign saw significant improvement, in comparison to the previous three seasons, and he was just a win or two away from what could have been a truly impressive season. Aside from his victory at Bay Hill, he came close with second at the Dubai Desert Classic and PGA Championship.

In the majors, he finished fifth at the Masters and settled for a tie for second at the Open Championship. Strong results that certainly boded well for 2019.

Rising from 11th in the rankings to eighth was another positive, and his performances at majors certainly gave him a significant boost.

DID AN EQUIPMENT CHANGE MAKE THE DIFFERENCE?

The Holywood man did play solidly in 2018, racking up a win and nine top-10s. However, he was not completely happy with his equipment.

Late in the year, he made some changes to his driver, a new model of putter and new ball, and his performances in 2019 were among the most consistent of his career, at least outside of the majors. His four wins – and 15 additional top-10 finishes – in 25 worldwide starts shows a player purring with confidence again.

“Last year Rory’s driving wasn’t up to par for him,” TaylorMade vice-president of tour operations Keith Sbarbaro said recently. “His driver was set up to go really far and it did. But it didn’t have enough control.”

A switch of ball with slightly more spin helped McIlroy, who has played with TaylorMade equipment since signing a 10-year contract in 2017.

“He wanted a bit more spin on his wedges but I loved it because it gave him more spin on his driver also,” Sbarbaro said.

“I just wanted him to get more spin on his driver. He obviously had way more control, led the tour in strokes gained driving and [was second] in distance, so he didn’t really give up much. On Trackman [measuring device] he was probably giving up three or four yards.”

On the PGA Tour, the four-time major winner’s +2.551 was the best Strokes Gained: Total figure, a statistic to measure a player’s performance against their rivals, by anyone not named Tiger Woods. He also led in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee during the season and finished a career-best 24th in Strokes Gained: Putting (+0.43), after sitting 97th the previous year. A serious improvement.

His SpiderX model putter, with a thick line down the crown to help for alignment, has been key and makes it easier for him when lining up putts.

Nobody can predict the future, but based on his stellar 2019 season, McIlroy has at least found compatible tools as he seeks to break a major drought that stretches back to 2014.

BACK TO HIS BEST

In 2019, McIlroy looked a class apart from his rivals and was awarded with the PGA Tour Player of the Year accolade.

Of course, one will look at his major form and, again, question his composure on the big stage. He finished outside the top-20 in the Masters, missed the cut in the Open, was never in contention at the PGA Championship and finished in a tie for ninth at the US Open.

Winning majors and tournaments is not easy. But over time, McIlroy is becoming better equipped at being able to achieve success on the grand stage.

Watching him last season and looking at his body language, he’s prepared to overcome the mental obstacle of trying to become the sixth player to win the Grand Slam. Although everyone expects him to be at the sharp end of the leaderboard for majors, McIlroy is just happy to be playing consistent golf and knows his time will come soon.

With Brooks Koepka still working his way back to form after knee surgery, McIlroy, if all goes well, has the chance to seal the world No1 spot and arrive at the Masters in April as the player to beat.

As it stands, we are seeing a mellow McIlroy, a more mature figure and a more consistent player. All of these are adding to his world class performances.

HOW DOES HE FARE AT VENUES FOR MAJORS IN 2020?

Showing signs that he can be a true force again, there is a genuine feeling for all golf fans that McIlroy will spark into life and collect that long-awaited fifth major in 2020.

He looks to be enjoying his golf, has his best friend on the bag and has plenty of things in order off the course to keep his mind occupied.

Since his first major appearance at the Masters in 2010, he has recorded MC-T15-T40-T25-T8-4-T10-T7-T5-T21 finishes at Augusta National.

Strong results, in particular, over the last five years prove he can be in the mix on any given day.

His ability to strike his irons up in the air bodes well for the layout of this course, and his new clubs should help navigate the greens to perfection.

In May, Winged Foot will host the 120th edition of the US Open, a major McIlroy won back in 2011.

Since his maiden victory nine years ago, McIlroy placed ninth in the 2015 edition, missed three cuts and finished ninth at Pebble Beach last year.

Only two men have completed 72 holes under par in the five previous editions of the major contested at Winged Foot, which could potentially throw up any winner come the final day.

At TPC Harding Park, the venue for this year’s PGA Championship, McIlroy has previously clinched victory, going 6-0 in his matches before defeating Gary Woodland 4 & 2 in the final back in 2015.

This will be the major McIlroy will be licking his lips at the thought of when he arrives in San Francisco in June, the first time the west coast has hosted the major in 22 years.

The Open will bring down the curtain on the majors for the year, and McIlroy would love to redeem himself after missing the cut at Portrush last season.

His form at the Open has been impressive, with a win back in 2014 and also finishes of second, third, fourth and fifth over the years.

At the Royal St. George’s course where this year’s event will be played, McIlroy logged four decent rounds to finish in a tie for 25th back in 2011, the year Darren Clarke clinched victory.

An exciting year awaits.

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