Has Rory lost his roar? I certainly hope not, but he’s definitely suffering from a touch of laryngitis at the moment.
His inability to close out the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic on Sunday was a definite low point, not just for the likeable Irishman, but for his legions of supporters as well. Being a Rory fan is not for the faint-hearted. It requires treading a bumpy road littered with sublime shots that no one else (and I mean no one else) in the world can play but it also involves open-mouthed disbelief at the wide misses that occur when it matters most. It’s like living with an irregular heartbeat – the constant, nagging feeling that something is always just lurking in the shadows to derail you.Way back in 2009 Rory recorded his first professional win here, at this same Emirates Golf Club. Well, I can’t really describe the course as the “same”, seeing as all the greens have recently been relaid and improved. Rory himself has morphed into a different version of himself. No longer the slightly full-faced youngster with an uncontrollable mop of curly hair and a swagger that oozed self-confidence, he is now a husband, a dad and a chiselled athlete without even a pinch of body fat. He has dependents now, responsibilities and other priorities that come to us all as we grow up but they seem to have stolen the seemingly carefree attitude and joie de vivre that was the hallmark of his game and made him so watchable – and so unbeatable. Four majors by the age of 25 raised everyone’s expectations. Was it unreasonable to expect that that rate of success would continue? Perhaps. Anyone who follows sport knows all about the peaks-and-troughs syndrome and that nothing lasts for ever – not even the success of Manchester United in the Fergie era. Rory’s sublime skills are still there – we have seen plenty of evidence of that – but I detect, dare I say it, a trait in his play that wasn’t present in his early years. He’s a reader, a deep thinker, a student of the game but it’s as if he is trying to do everything TOO perfectly and it has put him in a bit of an emotional and mental straitjacket that can inhibit his best work when he most wants it.
Rory failed to win in Dubai because he was unsettled, unclear in his thinking. Winning is not easy and he had to wait on virtually every single shot, which is very wearing for a quick player such as McIlroy. He’s no stranger to waiting but on this occasion it started to rattle him. He was annoyed when a photographer clicked too early on his second shot into the 16th and two audible obscenities (very un-Rory like) in the last two holes were an indication as to his scrambled brains.
Needing a birdie at the last to win the tournament I don’t believe he chose the wrong shot in not electing to lay up short of the water. He chose the wrong shot once he had pulled the 3-wood out of the bag. There was only one place not to go – the water. Anywhere over the back of the green or into the drop zone via the grandstand would have given him a 50/50 chance of a lie that would have let him get up and down for the win. At worst he would have been in the play-off. It was arguably the easiest route to the winning birdie for him given the front flag position.
Rory, being Rory, however, and because he is so talented, was too greedy. He aimed left but tried to fade it in towards the pin. He didn’t need to do that at that juncture. It was as if he was playing the shot that everyone would expect Rory McIlroy to play. Mistake. Only Rory knew how he was really feeling inside but he certainly wasn’t exuding confidence. When the heat was on Rory took 10 blows to cover the final two holes, with Richard Bland and Viktor Hovland, the two players making the play-off, scoring 7 and 6 shots respectively.Rory beat himself in Dubai. I can’t ever recall anyone saying that about Tiger Woods. Tiger didn’t always have his A game but you had to pull out all the stops to beat him. At the moment Rory is giving his opposition a bit of a helping hand. Sure, there are always some equipment wrinkles to work out this early in the season and pros will constantly work on their technique but I can’t help but feel that Rory has misplaced that unfettered, inner calm that in the past has allowed him to make those sound decisions that lead to aggressive, fearless execution of his shots. He needs to tap into that mindset again in order to win more majors.
No majors for more than seven years means we have been starved for too long of a Rory in full flow when it matters most. Time, perhaps, to play as he did when a kid at Holywood golf club with his dad. Rory has the recipe for success already, all the ingredients required – of that there is no doubt. He’s just mislaid the bit that tells you what temperature to put the oven at and how long the cooking takes.
Here’s hoping he finds the missing bit of that recipe soon.