Rory McIlroy described it as “some noise around me”, but that was his public reaction. Privately, he was probably laughing his Nike socks off. Rightly so, too. It was incredible, after all, that some people out there seemed to think he’d become a choker. One recent headline even asked: “Is Rory the worst great player ever?” For goodness sake.
Yes, he had gone without a win for a whole year. Yes, he’d been unable to get the job done on nine occasions playing in the final group since the start of 2018. Yes, his putting was always what seemed to be the missing piece in the jigsaw. Even for the very best, though, winning is much more difficult than lots of people seem to think.
As the snipers took potshots at him, McIlroy never once doubted his talent. He knew that his game was in good overall shape. In five starts in 2019, he’d finished fourth-fifth-fourth-second-sixth. The win he recorded in the Players Championship at Sawgrass on Sunday was on the cards. Those critics have been back-tracking furiously. Not that McIlroy cares.
“I don’t play golf to answer – I play golf for myself,” he insisted. “I play golf because I love the game and I know that I have a talent for it and I want to make the most of it. So I’m just satisfied that I’ve added another great tournament to my CV, and it puts me in a great spot going forward.”
It does indeed. His fifth attempt to try to become just the sixth player to complete a career grand slam by winning The Masters is now looming large. His final warm up will be next week’s WGC Dell Technologies Match Play event in Austin, Texas. No matter what happens there, the 29-year-old is heading for Augusta National in fine fettle.
“I feel like I’ve managed the first six weeks or six tournaments of the year very well, even with some noise around me, whether it is, ‘he can’t close, he can’t plays on Sundays, blah, blah, blah’,” he said. “I’ve just got to do my thing and, if I go and I concentrate on me, control what I can do, good golf and good attitude takes care of the rest. And, if I go to Augusta with a similar golf game to what I have now and the attitude I’ve shown over the first few weeks of the year, I think I’ll have a great chance.”
So, can this be the year he claims a place alongside Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods? Having finished, fourth, tenth, seventh and fifth in the season’s opening major since giving himself that opportunity, there is nothing whatsoever to suggest it can’t happen, that’s for sure. And, by the sounds of things, McIlroy has a new sense of perspective that can help him deal with the eyes of the sporting world once again being on him in three weeks’ time.
“My attitude to golf, and not letting golf define who I am as a person, is something I’ve worked hard on the last six or seven months,” he said. “I’m trying to keep the two things very separate, because one thing that I used to do in the past is I’d let what I shot that day influence who I was or my mood.
“Keeping those two things very separate is something I’ve worked hard on because who I am as a person isn’t who I am as a golfer, and it took me a while to get to that point where I realised who those two people were. I think that’s been the big difference between the highs and lows of the last few years and the more consistent play, even over the last 12 months.”
With all due respect to the likes of Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose, for my money McIlroy in full flight is the best in the world. And, while that Masters win would be absolutely fantastic for both him and the game, here’s hoping that even the cynics out there start appreciating what he brings to the sport rather than seemingly want to pick holes all the time.
It’s certainly time to lay off Harry Diamond, his caddie. Yes, he may be McIlroy’s best friend, but he’s not at his side simply because of that. “Harry has been a massive part making me more comfortable on the golf course,” declared McIlroy.
“Harry is an accomplished golfer, and he has turned into one of the best caddies out here, if not the best. He’s so committed. He’s so professional. And having him by my side out there is so good and so comforting.”
You get the feeling that phase two of McIlroy’s career has just cleared the launchpad.