HEDDON-ON-THE-WALL, England — Just yards from the boundary of Close House Golf Club, the venue for this week’s British Masters, is the birthplace of George Stephenson, inventor of the first passenger steam locomotive.
Like Stephenson, Rory McIlroy knows all about hot air. The difference is that Stephenson used it and McIlroy has to suffer it.
The Northern Irishman’s very presence here this week, precisely ten years and one week after he launched his professional career in this tournament at The Belfry, has produced plenty of that particular form of hot air. “What is he doing here?” came the cry.
The answer appears to be straightforward: McIlroy needs a minimum of five starts to fulfil his European Tour membership criteria. If you suspect that the Tour’s star attraction might deserve leeway given it has been obvious for some time that he requires rest to recuperate fully from a lingering rib injury, remember that he was granted exactly that back in 2015, at the behest of CEO Keith Pelley, and the decision was far from popular.
“I didn’t want to put the European Tour in another sticky position,” he explained ahead of this week’s first round. “So I thought, yeah, I’ll play an extra [tournament] and not have them make a hard decision. I want to play the Ryder Cup next year, too [which requires European Tour membership]. That was a big part of the decision.”
It reflects well on McIlroy that he’s taken these steps after a year which has been stymied by injury. Following next week’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, he will rest for a minimum of six weeks, hoping that the time will leave him physically and –perhaps equally importantly –mentally fresh for 2018.
His preparation for this year could hardly have been a greater contrast. Whereas this year he will avoid the range, last year he as good as camped down on it, sifting through a bewildering range of equipment sent to him in the aftermath of Nike’s withdrawal from the market.
He admits that it was during this time he first felt a soreness in the rib area and that was not the only problem he faced. “I was actually overwhelmed with the amount of stuff that I had,” he recently told the No Laying Up podcast. “Testing every combination, it was very difficult to differentiate.”
The pre-Christmas twinge became a post-New Year niggle at the South African Open. Nonetheless, he took anti-inflammatories and played. What’s more, he played well, losing in a play-off to Graeme Storm. It’s curious now to think that it was widely deemed a promising start to the year.
Within days, however, a scan had revealed a stress fracture. After recuperation and a solid if slow-burning Masters performance in April, he suffered a related injury blow at The Players Championship the following month.
“If someone had told me in your first ten years you’re going to achieve what I have, I’d have been ecstatic, over the moon.”
Throw in the drama of wedding preparation, the ceremony itself, the ongoing debate about the benefit or otherwise of his gym-work, and a high-profile farewell to long-term caddie JP Fitzgerald and you have a mixed year of highs and frustrations.
McIlroy is a superstar and superstars do nothing without a lot of chatter from outsiders. There is a bias attached to this blather which leans observers towards discussing what hasn’t been achieved rather than what has, a determination to compare with greats of the past who accomplished more, quickly forgetting what has already been surpassed.
McIlroy knows it and has been frustrated by it, but he’s also smart enough to largely cope. It is no coincidence that he has previously sought the advice of Jack Nicklaus and the late Arnold Palmer, both of whom’s success on the course was not at the expense of their life off it.
When, in 2013, Sir Nick Faldo suggested McIlroy needed to be more ruthless, devoting himself more to the sport even at the expense of others, there were plenty close to McIlroy who noted that the advice was missing the point.
McIlroy wants life balance, it matters to him, and it didn’t stop him becoming one of only three players in the modern era to have earned four major championship wins by the age of 25 (alongside Tiger and Jack) which in itself hasn’t stopped suggestions that he should have won more of them — he hasn’t added to his count since 2014.
Asking such questions is far from wrong because McIlroy is very good and also ambitious. He wants more majors, too. But fallow periods are also inevitable, even for the greats.
Nicklaus had two spells of three years when he went without a major win, Woods waited nearly two and half years to add a second major to his first and had another barren streak of three years between 2002 and 2005. Gary Player (nine majors) and Tom Watson (8) also had gaps of three years between wins.
So how does McIlroy himself view the ten years he has been a professional?
“If someone had told me at The Belfry that in your first ten years, you’re going to achieve what I have, I would have been very happy,” he said. “I would have been really happy. I would have been ecstatic, over the moon.”
Then the hunger of a champion kicked in.
“But because of the experiences I’ve had in those ten years, and the golfer that I’ve become, I feel like the next ten years, I can be even better. So that’s why I think these next three months [of rest] are going to be very important for my career going forward.
“These three months could give me the foundation that turns a great career into one of the greatest careers.”
It’s tempting, then, to view this week as an exercise in going through the motions, but a strong showing is not out of the question.
One simple reason is pride: He hasn’t won this year, something he has not experienced since his maiden triumph in 2009. A second reason is that this represents an opportunity, albeit a minor one, to end the year on a high.
If that seems a very small triumph for one whose goals are so lofty, reflect on 2013.
That, too, was a poor year for him. He lost his swing, he struggled with an equipment change (the move to, rather than away from, Nike), every decision was accompanied by the constant buzz of chatter. Sound familiar?
He ended that campaign with a visit Down Under which was poo-pooed by many, but he won the Australian Open, defeating Adam Scott. It was his first and only title of the season.
And the following year? He won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone and the PGA Championship at Valhalla. A stellar season.
Sometimes the little wins really can contribute to the greater picture.