ATLANTA — No player incites more angst—Tiger included—than Rory McIlroy. He has the ability to make a tough game look easy, so when he fails to do so, media and fans wonder what’s wrong.
That was especially true in 2019. His case of the Sunday scaries continued, and awe-inspiring as his Friday run at Royal Portrush proved, it was still another summer without a major, the only metric by which he is judged.
But if these stresses weigh Rory down, he didn’t show it Wednesday, sauntering through the East Lake clubhouse looking like a man in search of coffee rather than one competing for $15 million. Granted, McIlroy has long stated—and did so again during his press conference—that money at this stage of his career doesn’t matter, and the Ulsterman has always carried himself in a nonchalant manner.
There are varying degrees of truth to the Rory worries above, but they have been discussed at length. Instead, let’s put our Rory pitchforks in the shed and keep things simple. Which means appreciating McIlroy’s year for what it is rather than what it is not.
With just four rounds to go, McIlroy has a chance to finish with the PGA Tour’s best strokes-gained season (2.495) by a player not named Eldrick. That statistic has only been around since 2003. Nevertheless, it’s a proven barometer of performance, a measurement that says the sport just saw one of its best seasons in the last two decades.
McIlroy also leads the tour in sg/tee-to-green, is second in distance and second in scoring. He’s amassed an impressive 10 top-six finishes in 18 starts, with 13 top-10s. By way of comparison, Brooks Koepka has eight top-10s in 20 appearances. Where those finishes came matter (four top-fours for Brooks in majors, including one win). Still, the level of continued excellence from McIlroy was downright Woodsian. McIlroy even acknowledged, while Koepka is the clear front-runner for Player of the Year, this week can make that a debate.
“If I won this week and won the FedEx Cup, then yes,” McIlroy said. “I’d have three wins, the same as Brooks. Obviously, Brooks won a major and competed in all the other ones as well. It goes back to what’s the Player of the Year rewarding? Is it rewarding a few weeks, or is it rewarding entire—and this would be—if I were to play well or win this week, it would be my 14th top ten out of 18 or 19 events. I feel like I’ve been very consistent.”
More importantly, he won twice, highlighted by his triumph at the Players Championship. TPC Sawgrass is a venue at odds with McIlroy’s game, calling for precision and patience over blunt-force trauma. Yet on a day when most of his competitors went sideways, McIlroy was steadfast, his two-under 70 good enough for a one-shot win. Knock the Players’ “fifth major” tag all you want, what is undeniable is it boasts the best field of the calendar. For any other player, winning the Players makes a season.
Even in his alleged shortcoming, McIlroy shined. At this level of the sport, you have to do something pretty special to make Friday memorable. The way he battled following an opening eight-over 79 at the Open, in front of his homeland, provided a moment that will endure beyond that week in July.
Though golf is blessed with several under-30 stars, none necessarily possess McIlroy’s allure. That unfortunately works against him; no matter what McIlroy achieves, it will never reach the bar we have collectively set.
McIlroy is usually good about keeping those expectations at bay. That cracked at Portrush, but hey, cracks are how the light comes through.
This week is a palate cleanser of sorts. Even if he wins the FedEx Cup for the second time in four years—he will start Thursday four shots back of Justin Thomas—critics will chalk 2019 as a disappointment. Their minds are already made, their eyes gazing towards Augusta and McIlroy’s bid to complete the career grand slam once more in 2020.
To an extent, they are right: A win will not change the tone of Rory’s season. But it is a tone that’s far from negative.