The great Padraig Harrington is a man of many words, some of which might not entirely stand up to closer scrutiny. Such was the case the other day when the Irishman addressed what has come to be viewed by some tough-minded souls as Rory McIlroy’s major championship “drought”.
“Rory’s well on the way to winning double digit majors,’’ Padraig declared. Ten or more majors? Really? Do you want mulligan, Padraig?
“Well, it has got harder,’’ the 2007 Open winner went on. “But the beauty is Rory is still young, he’s still very capable, and with patience those majors will come.”
In truth, Harrington could hardly have said anything else. If he had suggested his friend and countrymen was a busted flush, he might have had Open Championship backpage headlines to deal with.
He would also have been wrong.
Only a fool would say McIlroy will never win another major and Padraig is no fool. But to say he will finish in double figures, an achievement that would place him fourth on the all-time list of major champions, behind Nicklaus, Tiger and Walter Hagen, is stretching credulity tighter than Colin Montgomerie’s yoga pants.
It’s been four years since Holywood’s Boy Wonder held off to Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler to win his second PGA Championship, and fourth major championship, at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Valhalla golf club in Kentucky.
McIlroy has played thirteen majors since then, missed five cuts and had seven top ten finishes, albeit without ever looking like wrapping up a win in any of them. There are plenty of the Irishman’s peers who would settle for a record like that.
The problem is none of them were judged to be a generational talent when they came on to the circuit.
Harrington has a point, though.
At 29, McIlroy isn’t exactly over the hill. Phil Mickelson won his first major just before his 34th birthday and has won four more in the intervening years. As a player, McIlroy is similar to Mickelson – impulsive, single-minded, a risk taker, streaky and, of course, blessed by supreme talent.
Who’s to say that he won’t equal or even better what Mickelson has achieved in his 30s and beyond? The Irishman knocked off four major victories in three years. He can just as easily knock off another five or more over the next decade.
That’s the theory. The reality is a little more complicated.
For one thing, professional golf has changed since Mickelson won his first Masters in 2004. It is trending younger, and the overall standard is better. Players are coming out of the American college system ready to win on the PGA Tour and at major championships. Jordan Spieth did it, and so has Justin Thomas.
There are plenty more like those two coming to a winner’s circle near you. Write down these names: Sam Burns, Cameron Champ, Aaron Wise. All young, all fearless and all potential world-beaters in the very near future.
Harrington was right too, it is getting harder. Even so, McIlroy at his very best, which is to say in those short exhilarating bursts between 2011 and 2014 when he was winning majors, would be a match for anyone, regardless of age. The question is will he ever hit those heights again.
The comparison with Mickelson is an interesting one, not least because in one obvious way it doesn’t bode well for the Irishman. At the age of 48, Mickelson still loves golf with the passion of a kid. Sometimes he behaves on the course like a spoiled child but most of the time he looks like he’s having fun.
Unlike many pros, who can’t wait to put the clubs away in the cupboard, he plays the game in his spare time. Contrast that with McIlroy, who confessed recently he only recently started playing recreational golf again after a long hiatus. “I couldn’t understand people who went out and played a lot,’’ he said.
Full marks for honesty (as usual) but in his casual dismissal of the casual game McIlroy perhaps offered a little insight into the current state of his golfing soul. What if he has fallen a little out of love with the game he embraced as a kid and has so glorified as a pro? Who could blame him if he had?
After all, he is a married man now. He has, by his own estimation, accumulated a bank balance in the hundreds of millions of dollars, with the potential to multiply that many times over.
Once upon a time, he was motivated by hunger for success. Now he has attained it and all the trappings, it would only be natural if he struggled to identify and channel an equally powerful motivation.
In his landmark book about coaching Tiger Woods, The Big Miss, Hank Haney wrote that he noticed Tiger Woods’ motivation for practice beginning to wane around 2005, that the then world number one began to pursue interests other than golf, not least an outlandish desire to become a Navy Seal.
Woods kept winning majors but golf was no longer the only thing in his life – a natural development for a man who was raised with a golf club in his hand and who was long consumed with the maniacal pursuit of greatness.
Rory’s upbringing was, mercifully, more grounded than Tiger’s, but no less dominated by golf. Now that he is a grown man, with a keen intelligence and interest in the world around him, it would only be natural if, like Woods, his love of the game has diminished a little, that his desire to unlock the secrets of, say, putting, was not as all-consuming as it once was.
This isn’t a criticism of McIlroy, only an observation, an attempt to explain the long wait for his next major victory. Who knows, it might even provide all the motivation he needs over the coming days.
After all, there would be no better way to make fools of those who say the Irishman has fallen out of love with golf than for him to win an Open Championship at Carnoustie.