With all of the attention on Tiger’s second comeback start, speculation about what Phil has up his sleeve with LIV, and Scottie Scheffler adding a green jacket to his already fantastic 2022 season, Rory McIlroy is once again keeping a low profile as we head toward the PGA Championship. It’s been an eight-year draught for Rory in the major championships, but his game is primed and ready for an assault on Southern Hills—and it really should come as no surprise if he is raising the Wanamaker trophy on Sunday afternoon.
The Early Years (2006-2010)
Rory exploded onto the golf scene all the way back in 2006, when at 17 years old he won the European Amateur Championship and rose to No. 1 in the Amateur World Golf Rankings, earning a place in the field for the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie. Unknown in American circles, he immediately turned heads with a first round 68 (a shot ahead of Tiger), made the cut and took home the Silver Medal as low amateur. Aaron Oberholser, one of the best players on the PGA Tour at the time, was paired with McIlroy on Saturday. When asked what he thought after the round, Oberholser said “I watched him hit his opening tee shot and thought: ‘Man, who is this kid?’ He went on to describe Rory’s approach shot in the cold wind on the 4th hole: “He took the nine, put the ball back in his stance and the shot made a sound I’ll never forget. At that point I’d only ever heard one player make that sound with their irons: Tiger Woods. He just hit it so clean, so crisp and there was so much effortless speed at the bottom of the swing. The way he compressed the ball was unlike anything I’d ever seen apart from Tiger.”
After competing as a member of the European Walker Cup team at Royal County Down, Rory turned pro and made the cut in 6 of the 8 tournaments he entered on the European Tour that year including two Top-10’s. In 2009 he recorded his first professional win at the Dubai Desert Classic while still a teenager (Rory turned 20 in May of 2009), and showed his pedigree by making the cut in all four major championships, including a T20 at The Masters, a T10 at the U.S. Open and a T3 at the PGA Championship. In 2010 Rory won his first PGA Tour Event at Quail Hollow, and continued his strong play at the majors with a T3 at the Open Championship and another T3 at the PGA.
In 2011 Rory began to flex his muscle, adding another European Tour win at the UBS Hong Kong Open, and then followed up with an eight-shot victory in the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club, dominating the field. From 2011 through 2015, McIlroy won 4 major championships (2011 U.S. Open, 2012 PGA, 2014 PGA, 2014 Open Championship), 2 World Golf Championships, 5 European Tour events, and 4 regular PGA tournaments. He also recorded 41 additional worldwide Top 10’s, led the European Tour in scoring average three times (‘11, ‘14, ‘15) and ranked first in scoring on the PGA Tour in scoring average twice (‘12, ‘14). At 26 years old, with 15 worldwide wins including 4 major championships, Rory entered the prime of his career on a pace that would put him with Jack and Tiger—if he could maintain it.
Cruise Control (2016-2021)
McIlroy has not won a major since his victory at the 2014 PGA Championship and given his monumental talent, that is almost impossible to believe. Rory is one of the nicest young men you will ever meet, and perhaps that is a contributing factor. Jack and Tiger were both cut from the same cloth, with a singular drive where winning (particularly major championships) was their central focus to the exclusion of just about everything else—and opponents were given no quarter should they foolishly try to stand in the way. Rory is different, he seems to view golf as a friendly game that he loves to play, and his fellow competitors as a bunch of guys that he would like to beat—but if not, well that’s OK too.
While Rory hasn’t recorded any major titles since 2014, his over-all record through the past six years is second only to Dustin Johnson. Since 2016 he has recorded 12 wins (9 PGA Tour and 3 European Tour), 12 Major Top-10’s, 32 PGA Tour Top 10’s, won the FedEx Cup, and made the cut in 87% of the tournaments he entered. For comparison, while Brooks Koepka won 4 majors, he recorded only 3 regular tour wins with 26 Top-10’s, and made the cut in 79% of the tournaments he entered over the same period.
Keep in mind that while Rory has been on tour for a long time, he only just turned 33 this month, and his talent and ability have not diminished in the least—so if he decides to turn off the cruise control and put the pedal to the metal, the field will be scrambling for cover.
Rory is coming off a runner-up at The Masters, where he closed with a spectacular 64 on Sunday and followed up with a 5th place finish at the Wells Fargo Championship. He currently stands 2nd on tour in scoring average, and 8th in driving distance. The only thing holding Rory back is the putter, where he currently ranks 81st on tour—but that can change in a heartbeat (he ranked 20th in 2021). The level of talent on the PGA may well be the highest it has ever been, with young stars like Scottie Scheffler, Collin Morikawa, John Rahm, and Justin Thomas—but if Rory decides to kick it he can tap a gear that only Jack and Tiger ever possessed. And if that happens this week at Southern Hills, the field is in big trouble. Rory looks like he’s ready to go, and it is high time he add a fifth major championship to his resume. It’s also great when nice guys finish first every now and again—and let’s hope it is at the 2022 PGA.