Martin Dempster: This can be a major year for Rory McIlroy
Eight of golf’s defining events have now taken place, after all, without McIlroy coming out on top, and, though not exactly the basis for talk of a serious loss of form or confidence crisis, it’s a run nonetheless that seemed unlikely when he claimed a first Open Championship and second US PGA Championship within the space of a few weeks in the summer of 2014 and, for good measure, also claimed a World Golf Championship in between.
McIlroy, of course, only played in seven of those majors in 2015 and 2016, missing out on his Claret Jug defence at St Andrews due to an injury sustained in a football kickabout with his mates. It’s undeniable, though, that he never really made his presence felt on the leaderboards in any of those other events, and missing the cut in both the US Open and US PGA Championship last year was certainly not what we’ve come to expect from the Northern Irishman on the sport’s biggest stages.
“My major championship performances haven’t been what I wanted,” McIlroy told The Scotsman in Dubai in November as he assessed his 2016 campaign. “If you take the majors away, I feel like I have played pretty well and had a good season (winning the Irish Open was the highlight on the European Tour while late-season successes in the Deutsche Bank Championship and the Tour Championship helped him lift the FedEx Cup on the PGA Tour).
“Next season I just need to make sure the majors match up to what I am doing outside of them.”
Where better to try and start than Augusta National in April? Victory there, after all, would make McIlroy only the sixth player after Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods to complete a career Grand Slam. In two attempts thus far, he finished fourth behind Jordan Spieth in 2015 then tenth as Danny Willett sprang his surprise victory last year. It would be no surprise if it was third time lucky. A better start than in recent years wouldn’t go amiss. He will certainly be boosted by the fact he is heading there feeling more confident with a putter in his hands than he has for some time.
At two of the other three major venues in 2017, McIlroy will break new ground – the US Open is heading to Erin Hills in Wisconsin for the first time while Royal Birkdale will also be virgin territory for him in the Open Championship, having missed out on playing there in 2008 – but he will certainly be relishing the prospect of Quail Hollow staging the US PGA Championship. It was there that he landed a first win in a regular PGA Tour event, closing with a 62 to finish four strokes ahead of second-placed Phil Mickelson in 2010.
Also fascinating in 2017, of course, will be the continued comeback of the aforementioned Woods. There were certainly signs on his much-anticipated return after a 15-month absence following three back operations that the obituaries penned about the former world No 1 could well be premature. At the same time, though, it’s only after a prolonged run of events that we will really see where he is both physically and mentally.
Bearing in mind it will be nine years in June since the last of his 14 major wins, you have to think that particular chapter in his career is finished. Just imagine those TV rankings, though, if Tiger does get himself in the Masters mix or is challenging for a fourth Claret Jug in Southport, where he finished third behind his big buddy, Mark O’Meara, in 1998 before missing out due to injury when Padraig Harrington successfully defended the title a decade later.
Woods and McIlroy apart, the eyes of the golfing world will also be on Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson and Dustin Johnson this year. Can Day hold on to his world No 1 spot? Can Spieth show that he has, indeed, got that Masters meltdown last April out of his system? Can Stenson and Johnson, two of the most exciting players in the game to watch, kick on in the majors after making their big breakthroughs in the Open Championship and US Open respectively in 2016? Hopes are high that Stenson will warm up for his title defence in the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open when it heads to Dundonald Links in Ayrshire for a first visit.
The highlight of the 2017 women’s season will be the Solheim Cup at Des Moines in Iowa, where the first priority for the two opposing captains, Julie Inkster and Annika Sorenstam, will be to ensure there is no lingering bad blood from the last encounter, when Suzann Pettersen was left having to apologise for her role in the controversy sparked by whether a putt had been conceded or not. Exciting, too, will be Kingsbarns staging the Ricoh Women’s British Open for the first time.
As for the amateur game, it will be interesting to see how a shake-up of the domestic fixture transpires, while Craig Watson will be hoping Connor Syme and Robert MacIntyre, left, will be pushing strongly to make the Great Britain & Ireland side he will lead into battle in the Walker Cup in Los Angeles in September.