A penny for the thoughts of Rory McIlroy, an absent friend at the $10 million finale to the PGA Tour season. The world’s best golfers are gathered at the Tour Championship in Atlanta to conclude the Fed-Ex Cup. McIlroy is the big miss, failing to accrue sufficient points to join the party.
Jordan Spieth, winner of the Open Championship, and Justin Thomas, who triumphed at the final major of the season, the PGA Championship, lead the parade of 30 at the top of the PGA Tour money list.
Any one of the top five in the Fed-Ex rankings, a group that also includes Dustin Johnson and Spanish supernova Jon Rahm, is guaranteed the $10m bonus jackpot with victory on Sunday. Winners coming from the further down the pecking order must hope the leaderboard stacks in their favour to take the extra bullion.
McIlroy has not won a tournament since his Fed-Ex Cup triumph at East Lake last year. A stress fracture to a rib during the close season while testing prospective clubs following the withdrawal of Nike from the manufacturing business has ultimately scarred his whole campaign. In this period the world order has regrouped at the top of the rankings spitting McIlroy from second at the turn of the year down to eighth.
The parallels with 2013, when he endured a similar annus horribilis as Nike’s much-vaunted acquisition, are obvious. He began that year as world no.1 and ended it sixth, waiting until December to record his one win, and then only by a stroke, seeing off Adam Scott at the 72nd hole to claim the Australian Open.
On the positive side, McIlroy returned in 2014 to claim back-to-back majors at the Open and PGA Championship, taking his career tally to four and re-asserting his credentials as the man around whom the golfing world looked set to revolve in the post-Tiger Woods era.
Yet the pressure that came with top billing took its toll, particularly at the 2015 Masters where the narrative was all about McIlroy becoming only the sixth golfer after Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen to win the career grand slam of all four majors. In that event, Augusta ushered in the player who would become the biggest threat to McIlroy in the battle for post-Woods hegemony, Jordan Spieth.
And this year we have seen Thomas come in a rush, the emergence of Rahm as the next Spanish superstar and the maturing of Brooks Koepka into a major winner at the US Open. Throw in Johnson and golf has a spread of talent to ease the Woods generation gently towards the long grass. Critically, four of those ranked above McIlroy in the rankings are younger, which changes the dynamic significantly.
While it is absurd to dismiss McIlroy as a spent force at the age of 28, when you measure the depth of quality in the game and consider that the great Severiano Ballesteros won only five majors, Phil Mickelson, too, then it is not remotely silly to suggest that McIlroy’s early flowering might represent the best of his career.
He is scheduled to make only two more appearances this year, next week at Close House in Newcastle for the British Masters, which was a late edition after his Fed-Ex flop, and the Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland the following week. Thereafter he is committed to a period of dedicated practice to address the weaknesses in his game.
While his driving remains imperious, ranked third on the PGA Tour, it does not confer the advantages it might since even the average hitters can move the ball 300 yards-plus with today’s equipment. McIlroy’s failings this season have principally been with the short sticks, 150 yards and in. He has been bang average at best with the wedges, at worst downright rank, frequently failing to find the green. This has put pressure on his putting, particularly tiddlers from five feet and in.
The stats are damning. McIlroy is ranked 141st in putting, 145th from 100-125 yards and 194th from 125 to 194 yards. Compare that to 2014, when he was 24th from 125 yards and 11th from 150. These are the meat-and-drink dinks for the tour pro, the pin-seeking shots that set up the birdie opportunities on the par-4s.
You might say McIlroy has suffered from lots of tiny cuts, incremental disruptions that when weighed together have had a big impact. To the rib injury and change of equipment, you can add his change of status from single to married man. Though ostensibly something to celebrate, as a multi-million-pound event in an Irish castle in the middle of the season, distractions were bound to come as standard, not to mention the subsequent adjustments required to the way he approaches life.
The turbulence ultimately led to perhaps the greatest change of all, the removal of his long-term caddie JP Fitzgerald from his bag after the Open at Birkdale. Though the partnership has been much criticised, notably by ex-player and BBC pundit Jay Townsend, who has persistently took aim at McIlroy’s course management, the split still stunned the golfing community. McIlroy appointed his Belfast chum Harry Diamond as a temporary replacement but finding the right man for 2018 is a priority over the winter.
After missing the cut at the Dell Technologies Championship in Boston three weeks ago McIlroy admitted he was just waiting for the season to end. “That’s the way I am playing and the way I am thinking at the moment,” he said. “It is all just frustrating. I have been caught in two minds for the last couple of months between just trying to play well and I feel like I can but it is just not really happening. It could be like taking two steps forward but taking one back but I really just feel I am standing still.”
After announcing his decision to compete at the British Masters, a major boon to the European Tour as the season on this side of the Atlantic races towards its own cash-rich conclusion, McIlroy hinted that he might not have defended the Fed-Ex Cup at all were the decision down only to him.
“Some decisions aren’t completely up to the individual,” McIlroy said. “There were outside expectations from elsewhere. I played these events for two reasons: thinking that I still had a chance, but also trying to fulfil obligations elsewhere. So there were two parts of it.”
For obligations read sponsors. Meeting the needs of golf’s big investors is all part of the modern game. McIlroy is paid $10m a year by TaylorMade not to mention the huge sums pumped in by Nike. Playing on when you would rather be elsewhere is the price of fame.
With McIlroy packing his bags for Europe, Kyle Stanley made the early running at East Lake with an opening 64, two clear of a chasing group that includes Koepka and three ahead of Spieth, Thomas and Rahm. Johnson is poised a further shot back at two under par.
It promises to be some weekend. Sadly McIlroy will have to settle for watching from afar, if he can bear it.
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