Rory's year was impressive by most standards – so why isn't that good enough?
A closing 73 in the DP World Tour Championship seemed a fitting way for Rory McIlroy to sign off on 2018.
In 6th place at the halfway stage, three shots off the lead, he was ideally placed to continue his outstanding career record in the Middle East. He finished as a footnote, tied for 21st.
His week was typified by some less-than-pinpoint wedge play. This is an area of his game that attracts less criticism than his streaky putting and sometimes unreliable driving.
Nevertheless, it is surely a legitimate concern. It’s hard to think of another player at his elite level who misses as often and by as much, both in terms of distance and accuracy, as McIlroy has in recent months.
And so a fourth consecutive major-less season ends. By his own standards and, let’s be honest, ours as well, that constitutes failure.
This is the narrative that surrounds Rory’s 2018.
The 2014 PGA at Valhalla remains the Northern Irishman’s fourth and most recent major title. And what a long time ago that seems.
Since then, the likes of Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka (three times each), Zach Johnson, Jason Day, Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, Jimmy Walker, Sergio Garcia, Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed and Francesco Molinari have all stepped forward.
By almost anyone else’s standards, McIlroy’s career remains a stellar one. And at face value, McIlroy’s year has been decent.
He is ranked seventh in the world rankings and has won on the PGA Tour – at Bay Hill in March.
He’s still in his 20s – not turning 30 until next May.
So where’s the fire?
Well, more is expected from Rory than perhaps any other player of his generation.
It’s easy to understand why this should be. He had four majors to his name by his mid-20s and has played in five consecutive Ryder Cups before turning 30.
He’s won around the world and is the favourite, or very close to it, everywhere he tees it up. More so than any other golfer since Tiger, all eyes are on Rory.
So any time he fails to win it constitutes failure.
I’m not sure Rory would disagree with this sentiment in the sense that he only plays to win.
All of this has been the case for pretty much a decade now, which is a long time to be at the summit of any sport.
He’s at a stage in his career, and his life, where global travelling becomes tedious. It’s harder to remain motivated once it isn’t possible to win in any given week.
This is the backdrop to his announcement – actually more of an aside – that he can’t guarantee he will play enough European Tour events in 2019 to retain his membership.
The brutal reality is that the European Tour doesn’t have a whole lot to offer McIlroy at the moment, especially now his direct involvement with the Irish Open has come to an end.
Frankly, I’m not sure why McIlroy plays and travels as often as he does full stop. For example, did he really need to travel to the Far East in late October for the HSBC Champions?
Given he is measuring his career on majors, the only time he needs to be in Europe, you would think, is for a couple of weeks ahead of the Open each July to acclimatise and play some links golf.
Up until now, he has spread himself over both tours, but he has been playing considerably more in the States for pretty much the whole of his professional career, having moved to Palm Beach Gardens in 2012.
McIlroy turned pro at the end of 2007 and first played more than 10 PGA Tour events in a season in 2009. He has done so ever since, normally 16 or 17 in an injury-free year, seven of which are the majors and WGCs.
Typically, he plays 13 or 14 European Tour events per season, half of which are the majors and WGCs. He has never even played in a WGC held in Europe.
There are usually two early-season Desert Swing appearances, two at the end of the season culminating in the DP World Tour Championship plus the BMW PGA Championship and the Irish Open.
In Rory’s 2018 season, he played just three times on European soil – at Wentworth, Ballyliffin and Carnoustie.
In 2019, he says he is only committing to the Omega European Masters in Switzerland, plus one of the Scottish or Irish Opens. That will be it until August at the earliest, though he says he will reassess his options in May for this time next year.
Should he fail to play in a further two events, he will fall foul of a rule that says any future European Ryder Cup captains must play in the minimum of 11 events each season. We’ll see about that.
The collateral damage is a blow to the European Tour’s prestige, as well as a snub to the Middle East and its generous sponsors’ finances. I’m going to predict, though, that it won’t prevent McIlroy being Ryder Cup captain in the future.
It is certainly not going to stop the man himself doing what he thinks is right for his career. And nor should it.
“Jeez, I’d cause all the stirs in the world if I go back to winning majors,” McIlroy said.
It’s hard to argue with that.