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Rory McIlroy is well acquainted with golf’s maddening inconsistencies, but celebrations at Quail Hollow have become more like a constant. When referring to lowest ebbs, it should be pointed out that sinking to No 15 in the world is a rather shallow dive. But for one of the most talented players of this generation, the past months have still amounted to something of a crisis. There have been missed cuts at The Players Championship and The Masters, a blind pursuit of Bryson DeChambeau’s distance, outside whispers of derision towards his caddie, Harry Diamond, and a damaging two-way miss. For all McIlroy’s upbeat demeanour, a 553-day drought had become a heavy burden.
It was revealed in his cathartic celebrations last Sunday evening after he navigated an almighty scare on the 18th green to clinch his third victory at the Wells Fargo Championship, his emotions visible as he hoisted aloft a familiar trophy, the relief as evident as the joy. Few players can render golf as ridiculously easy or infuriatingly difficult from one day to the next. Since McIlroy’s last major victory in 2014, it has been a familiar cycle of idle frustration that morphs into urgent expectation the moment he comes into form. McIlroy may only be aiming to return to his old heights but, from others, there’s a demand to make up for lost time. It’s a testament to his talent that, regardless of form, he can never be ruled out of contention, but it also means that every close call or collapse over the past seven years has been portrayed as an opportunity squandered.
That is the scale of recent history McIlroy must overcome when he returns to Kiawah Island, the scene of one of his great early triumphs, for the PGA Championship next week. Back in 2012, he played with such an exquisite and near-effortless brilliance that he did not so much sprint to his second major but lap the field, finishing a record-breaking eight shots clear. He has already been anointed the clear favourite to win the Wanamaker Trophy, but that reputation has not always served him so well.
“Hopefully history repeats itself [at Kiawah] and I can get a lot of confidence from this,” he said. “It’s certainly great timing. This is obviously a huge confidence boost going in there knowing that my game is closer than it has been. I’ll be able to poke holes in everything that I did today and it’s far from perfect. But this one is validation that I’m on the right track.”
The holes are not to hard find. Whereas McIlroy’s driver was once a fierce strength, he mustered just three fairways in regulation during his final round in Charlotte. Instead, his victory was built on putting, the weapon in his arsenal that’s all too often betrayed him. Six weeks after teaming up with Pete Cowen, there is still plenty of work to be done, but the pieces are starting to fall into place.
Often, when those various facets have aligned, it is the mental side of McIlroy’s game that has demanded further scrutiny. There have been meditative and emotional spells, doubt about his hunger and clear evidence as to why they should be ignored - none more so than in Portrush in 2019, when he played with such fire and desire after a disastrous first round and could not hold back tears after falling short of the cut line. But, of course, McIlroy’s outlook on life has changed in the years since he took golf by storm. He’s been matured by age, weathered by experience, and is now a husband and a father - this was his first victory since his daughter, Poppy, was born last August. There will always be a yearning for the McIlroy of old, but he is not that person anymore, nor does it oblige him to be a lesser competitor.
After all, the sense of expectation next week will be just the same. The questions - of the omens that so often shadow his opening round, the nerves that cannot be allowed to fray, the doubts about the direction of his driver and rhythm to his putts - that will need to be answered. Only McIlroy’s very best can blow away a full-strength field, but something close to it may still be enough to hold them back. If golf is all about timing, he is returning to form at the perfect second. And if he can maintain it over the next fortnight, there is nothing to stop him finally breaking a cycle that’s already encumbered far too many years.