If it seems strange to be speaking of a year’s definition by late July, the nuances of golf’s rescheduled calendar because of the Olympic Games makes it a reality.
As he prepares for the US PGA Championship, the season’s final major, Rory McIlroy has admitted to recent battles with impatience on the biggest stages – not least in the Open at Royal Troon less than two weeks ago.
A run back to August 2014 when McIlroy won the fourth of his major titles hardly constitutes a drought, not least when injury disrupted his 2015 season. Context is everything; McIlroy’s talent and professional ambitions render lofty expectation natural.
“How can you not be motivated by watching the Sunday of the Open Championship with Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson?” McIlroy asked. “Going blow for blow down the stretch, that can only give you motivation and get the juices flowing. Of course you see guys and sometimes you think: ‘That should be me.’ It gives you a bit of a kick in the ass to get out there and practise.”
McIlroy turned towards gearbox and academic analogy when assessing his season as things stand. “A little bit of neutral,” the 27-year-old said. “I feel there’s been times where I got a little bit of momentum and then sort of got set back a little bit.
“It’s sort of been a little stop-start in a way. It’s hard to stay … not stay positive, I’m trying to stay as positive as I can and I feel like I am positive because my game is in good shape. But I guess just maybe I’m running out of patience a little bit and trying to make it happen.
“I don’t know if there’s one word to describe this year, that’s sort of a hard question. To grade this year, I’d say like a B- maybe. It’s OK. I could change that into an A+ on Sunday.
“There’s a lot of golf left, this last major of the year, and I want to give it my all to get in the mix to try to win another one of these things before I have to wait another eight months to try to get another opportunity at Augusta.”
Baltusrol looks perfectly setup for McIlroy. “I feel like I can really do well this week,” he said. “I feel like my game is in good shape. I had some really good practice sessions with my coach, Michael Bannon, last week. Every aspect of my game, I’m very comfortable with. Combine that with the layout of the course here and I feel like this is my best chance this year to win a major.”
McIlroy need not look for added inspiration. His scoring average of 69.75 in this tournament is the best in the field, he has earned $3,000 per shot – a total of $4.48m – in the final major of the year and has finished outside of the top 20 only once in seven appearances. He has also claimed the Wanamaker Trophy in different fashions, by cantering to an eight-stroke victory at Kiawah Island in 2012 and coming out on top, by one, in a fierce battle at Valhalla two years later.
If there is a negative, it perhaps lies in the fact McIlroy has never won a major at worse than 13-under par. Baltusrol’s ferocity is laid bare by the winning tallies for the US Opens and US PGAs played here, with minus-eight the best. McIlroy’s recurring fondness for proving doubters wrong means such figures may serve as added motivation.
“I feel like a lot of the courses that I’ve played in PGA Championships have been very fair,” the world No4 said. “Everything is straight out in front of you. There’s no real hidden secrets and I feel that’s what really lets me excel. I feel like I can play my game in US PGA Championships. I can hit driver off the tee the most time and from there, if I drive it well, I feel like I have a big advantage.”
To McIlroy’s credit, he does not swat aside the wider issue of whether annual major victories are a realistic prospect. “I think it is, I really do,” he said. “If you’re that good, you can do that. I think it is realistic, I think that is achievable.
“We’ve seen in the past that is achievable. That’s the benchmark, that’s what you’re trying to get to but it’s hard. 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, in that stretch of four years, I averaged a major a year.
“So there’s no reason to think I can’t do that for the foreseeable future. I have to play my best golf, and sometimes it’s hard to come up with your best golf each and every week but I definitely think it’s attainable.”
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