John Huggan: Rory McIlroy on road to greatness

Rory McIlroy with the Claret Jug after his Open Championship triumph at Hoylake in July. Picture: Getty
Rory McIlroy with the Claret Jug after his Open Championship triumph at Hoylake in July. Picture: Getty
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WALKING off the last green at The Australian club in Sydney last Sunday, Rory McIlroy looked like a man in need of a rest. Which was hardly surprising. There had been an “end- of-term” feel about the world No.1 throughout his eventually unavailing defence of the Australian Open title, the occasional sloppiness of his play and daftness of his dropped shots indications of a mind that was now and then elsewhere.

The Belfast boy has nothing to apologise for, though. In 2014, McIlroy raised the bar to an almost Tiger Woods circa-2000 type level. Where once he was prone to weeks good and bad, this year he has been nothing but good and great. Two majors were famously won. So was a World Golf Championship and the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship.

The Race to Dubai was over almost before it began. And no-one won more money on the PGA Tour without the aid of a spurious bonus pool masquerading as appearance money.

In all, McIlroy notched up 17 top-ten finishes and four victories in 25 worldwide starts. That is as close to domination as we are likely to get in a professional era where advances in clubs and balls have so egregiously narrowed the gaps between poor and average, average and good, good and great.

Despite that, McIlroy is approaching the heights of golf’s true icons. Look at the record books. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Woods and all the rest were hardly ever out of the top five. And, even last week, Rory was closer to contending than his eventual T-15 finish might suggest. Two ridiculous holes – a triple bogey at the ninth followed by a double at the 10th – in the third round blew him out of the tournament.

All of which is deserving of our admiration and praise, even if it is hardly surprising to anyone who has watched McIlroy’s development since he first came to international prominence as winner of the silver medal for leading amateur in the 2007 Open at Carnoustie. But, as ever in competitive sport, there is a follow-up question. Namely, can Rory now kick on and make himself – alongside Woods and Nicklaus – one of the best three players of all-time?

“There is rarely a clear-cut answer when comparing eras or great players,” points out former European Tour player Mike Clayton, now one of the game’s best and most inventive course designers and a keen observer of all things golf. “For example, Rory is the Greg Norman of this era in terms of the advantage he has over the others with his driver. Rory hits the ball farther than Greg did, but, if they flipped times and equipment, we can assume Greg would hit the ball as far as Rory does now and vice versa. It’s like wondering if Roger Federer is a better player than Rod Laver was. You just can’t do it. Federer has a frying pan in his hands and Laver played with what was not much more than a squash racquet.

“So you just never know. We saw Johnny Miller play incredible golf for a four or five-year period in the early 1970s. Everyone was in awe of what he did. Then he was gone. He just disappeared. Yes, he played decently later on. But he was never the same.

“Lee Trevino was a great player for 15 years or so but he was not Nicklaus. And he won only two more majors than Rory has already. A more immediate benchmark is someone like Tom Watson, who has eight majors to his name. All things being equal, Rory could pass that figure before he is 30. Then you’re in a special place occupied by the likes of Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Nicklaus and Woods. At the end of the day we can only speculate.”

Well, let’s do just that. It says here that McIlroy has at least the potential to hoist himself on to the rarified podium described by Clayton. Dan Jenkins, the great American sportswriter (and No.1 Tiger fan) once said the only things that could stop Woods passing Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles were “an injury or a bad marriage”, both of which, sadly, have come to pass.

McIlroy, on the other hand, seems to have, at least for the moment, dodged the prospect of marrying the wrong person. Which leaves injury.

“I do worry about Rory spending too much time in the gym,” adds Clayton. “The interesting thing about guys who are really fit is that they always seem to be hurt. I can’t recall seeing Nicklaus or [Sam] Snead or Hogan pushing massive iron bars above their heads. Maybe you have to do it in this era, though. It is the curse of the distance you now need to compete at the highest level – courtesy of the rules makers who have been found so badly wanting in their regulation of clubs and balls.”

Clayton is, of course, correct. But it is the modern way of things in professional golf.

While raw distance has always offered its owner a competitive advantage – as it should – that edge is now so disproportionate as to be laughable. So it is that his prowess with the driver gives McIlroy the opportunity to dominate absolutely what passes for his competition.

No other player in today’s upper echelon can do that. Adam Scott doesn’t putt well enough to win by eight shots. Bubba Watson is too “in and out”. And Jordan Spieth, the new Australian Open champion after playing what has been widely hailed as the best-ever round in the 110-year old championship, doesn’t have the big weapon you need to be consistently so far ahead of the rest. Rory is the only one. So he has a chance to be better than everyone except perhaps Woods and Nicklaus.

Still, should that all come to pass and we are already into what might be called “the McIlroy era,” a lingering dissatisfaction will surely remain.

“What the game really needs right now is for Tiger to come back and take on Rory head to head,” says Clayton. “With him at his peak we never really had a great rivalry. Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els came closest but with neither of them did Woods ever have an epic ‘match’. We never had Nicklaus-Watson majors like Augusta and Turnberry in 
1977 or Pebble Beach in 1982. There was nothing like Seve and Watson going at it in the 1984 Open at St Andrews.

“We need Tiger to sort out his driving, get himself motivated and fit and go to next year’s Masters ready to put on a show.

“In the end, that is what defines greatness in golf – beating the very best when it counts on Sunday afternoons at the majors.

“No-one is going to be in awe of Rory beating the likes of Henrik Stenson or Rickie Fowler or Jordan Spieth. They would all be nice wins, but we need Tiger if we are to witness truly seminal events over the next few years.

“Can he can come back and take on the kid? It would be wonderful if he could.”

Amen to that.