If you had told any golf fan after Rory McIlroy won the 2014 PGA Championship that five years on he wouldn’t have won a single major since, few would have believed it. But as each major has passed McIlroy by, the questions have grown louder as to whether or not the Northern Irishman still has what it takes.
This season has seen McIlroy demonstrate something of the form that won him those four majors in three years between 2011 and 2014. Victory in the Players Championship in March along with the recent triumph at the Canadian Open have put McIlroy back in the conversation when it comes to potential major champions.
As The Open returns to Northern Ireland for the first time in 66 years, McIlroy heads into this rare home tournament as the Betfair favourite to lift the title. This will bring a unique set of pressures upon his shoulders — the weight of a home crowd willing him towards victory. It’s important that McIlroy doesn’t allow this to get on top of him, and that he uses this home support to spur him on rather than hold him back.
Of course, McIlroy has been around long enough that such factors shouldn’t play too big a role in his mentality on the golf course. Indeed, his experience of winning The Open on Merseyside in 2014 will stand him in good stead, and should give him that inner belief that he can emerge victorious in tough links golf.
For McIlroy, even greater than the pressure of The Open being in Northern Ireland is the pressure of ending his major championship drought. It seems that with each passing major, the now 30-year-old feels an even greater desperation to win one of golf’s big four once again. Although he may not admit it himself, it is a cloud hanging over his head. But this Open Championship could provide the fitting setting to win that elusive fourth major and silence the doubters.
To do so he will have to beat the best, and with the likes of Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm in such good form, McIlroy will have his work cut out. Koepka has been a force to be reckoned with in major championship golf over the last couple of years, and victory at the PGA Championship earlier this year as well as second-place finishes at both the Masters and the US Open means Koepka goes into this final major of the year as one of the main nemeses of McIlroy’s potential dream victory.
Most will say that it’s only a matter of time until Rahm wins a major. The Spaniard has been in good form of late, having won the Irish Open a few weeks ago, so he will know what it takes to win on the Emerald Isle.
Then there is Tiger Woods, who goes into The Open having not played competitively since the US Open a month ago. Many have said the nature of Woods’ victory at the Masters has taken a lot out of him, so it remains to be seen whether he turns up to Royal Portrush refreshed and ready to go again, or still suffering from the hangover of that epic triumph.
McIlroy has bested all of these opponents before, and there’s no reason why this should not be a prime opportunity for the Northern Irishman to reassert himself as one of major golf’s greatest forces. They say that class is permanent — it’s time for Rory to prove it once and for all.