Officially Rory McIlroy is the eighth best player in the world. Get all his peers to rank the best in the business and you could pretty much guarantee that he’ll feature in everyone’s top three.
When the ‘on his day’ argument comes up McIlroy and Dustin Johnson are generally the first names to leave people’s mouths.
On Friday at Wentworth McIlroy missed one green, shot 65 to back up an opening 67 and Alex Noren, the World No. 19 and a likely team-mate at Le Golf National in September, described it as the best round he’d ever seen. “I’m about to quit golf I think,” he joked.
The Swede has been on tour for more than a decade, has one of the most envied swings, shot a course-record 62 to win here last year and very nearly broke through on the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines earlier this year.
And, for Noren, this is as good as it got.
“It’s hard to draw off of it when it’s that good. I really wanted to be the first on the tee to make a birdie, to get the honour and then you don’t have to hit after that 330 driver or 300-yard 3-wood,” explained Noren.
“It’s tough because it’s almost like you’re trying to play better than you need to when you see that. It’s just shot after shot after shot. It’s impressive. It’s almost like you put more pressure on yourself when he just hits before you or something like that. Obviously you shouldn’t think about that but it’s tough not to.”
And what did McIlroy make of his latest exhibition?
“I still feel like there’s a bit of work to do. I’m still hitting shots like the one I hit on 18 and some of the others. There were a couple of loose ones out there, so it’s still not 100 per cent where I want it but it’s getting there. It’s going in the right direction.”
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) May 26, 2018
Fast forward through a scrappy weekend and McIlroy didn’t close out the expected second PGA victory, there were more loose ones and we’re all scratching our heads as to where his game really is. The beauty of the 29-year-old is that he tells it like it is, he doesn’t fall back on easy clichés just to get through the interview and he’s always honest and insightful.
As well as applauding the brilliant champion Francesco Molinari he added that the tweaks that he and coach Michael Bannon were working on last week in Florida would take a short while to bed in.
On the Saturday he dropped three shots in the first six holes, his head was repeatedly caught between the swing and the shot required and yet he still broke par.
On Sunday there was more of the same.
“The couple of shots that got me on Saturday I missed to the right and then [on Sunday] the shots that cost me were missing left. When you have the two sides of the course in play, it’s a little difficult. If you could just take one side out of play, then at least you know what your miss is and you can sort of play against that.
“As a tournament goes on, you’re not spending as much time on the range because you’re into play mode. Maybe I just got away from a few of the things I was working on at the start of the week, which is the way, when you get under pressure and you’re forced to hit shots out on the course, you revert back to what you’ve been doing. There was a bit of that.”
In the end, for all the talk of a two-way miss and not feeling comfortable, the Northern Irishman saw an eagle putt at the 72nd hole stop right in the jaws which would have meant that the Italian would have to hole a curling six-footer.
In a high quality field and on a course where, away from the win and one other top-5 finish, it has been a story of missed cuts and lowly finishes and he was still only beaten by one other player.
“It’s close, it’s very close. I’ve given myself a great chance, I didn’t quite pull it off but it’s not far away. I get a bit down on myself because my expectations are high, and with a 36-hole lead, I should have closed it out this week.”
After the Augusta Sunday horror show everyone was whispering about how that would affect him terribly yet he’s very nearly won at a course that he’s chosen not to play in the last couple of years.
We all know what happened very soon after the first time he endured a horrific closing round at The Masters – if you’ve forgotten, he won the US Open by eight shots – and, away from the mesmeric swing and power and natural ability, he’s still learning how to deal with whet’s going on upstairs.
The ability to win ugly might be the next skill level to be added to his CV. The last time he won on the European Tour was the Irish Open at the K Club in 2016. The last major victory came at the 2014 PGA Championship when he backed up his Open breakthrough success at Hoylake.
Interestingly after Augusta he read two consciousness-related books, Essentialism and The Chimp Paradox.
“You can’t be afraid of failure because you have to be willing to fail to succeed, I guess,” he said.
“You have to be willing to take the risks and put yourself out there knowing that if you don’t win, it’s going to hurt, but if you do win, it’s going to be that much better.
“So I think that’s the first thing is not being afraid of losing. There’s no shame in that as long as you learn from it. Everything’s a learning opportunity. As long as you learn and you move forward and you put what you’ve learned into practice the next time, you’re going to be better for it.”
Had he won at Wentworth he would have had a shot at the World No. 1 spot at the Memorial this week.
His current world ranking is as misleading as anyone on the list. Expect that to change very soon.