Through those 32 majors, McIlroy has tried playing the week before six times. He has played two weeks before 14 times, three weeks before thrice, four weeks before four times, five weeks before thrice and seven weeks before once. (He had to miss one altogether: the 2015 British Open.) Momentum can be lovely, so six times he has tried winning within the preceding month. He has wound up second twice, third once, fourth twice, fifth four times, seventh twice, eighth thrice, ninth twice, 10th once, somewhere between 17th and 50th seven times, and cut seven times. The lone third-place finish, essentially a runner-up slot last July at St. Andrews at the 150th British Open, groans harshest.
Now he reaches the 105th PGA Championship in Rochester, N.Y., with no chance.
What a relief, even if the relief winks.
In golf, there’s always a chance that — in reverse chronological order — a dismal tie for 47th at Quail Hollow this month in Charlotte (where he had won twice and been in the top 10 five other times), a withdrawal from the Heritage that cost him $3 million under the PGA Tour’s new rules he helped spearhead, an even more dismal cut at the Masters and a dismal cut from the Players could prove so much better than say, winning the Canadian Open by seven shots (as happened the week before the 2019 U.S. Open, in which he finished tied for ninth). While his remarks to reporters Tuesday morning in Rochester didn’t seem hopeless, they felt muted far more than his remarks before the Masters or most any other place.
“Less expectations,” he said of his mental approach. “Just sort of trying to sort of be in a good spot with taking what comes and not thinking about things too much, not getting ahead of myself. Just trying to go out there, play a good first hole of the tournament, and then once I do that, try to play a good second hole and just go from there.”
Another time, he paused some at the beginning, and said: “Golf is golf, and it happens, and you’re going to have bad days. I don’t feel like the — it wasn’t really the performance of Augusta that’s hard to get over, it’s more the — it’s the mental aspect and the deflation of it and sort of trying to get your mind in the right place to start going forward again, I guess.”
He noted that Oak Hill, holding its seventh major championship, would require “discipline” above all else.
Tucked into it all, he pivoted from the stresses of the spokesman role he took on as the moneyed LIV Golf Series took life, in two comments that figure to have healthy shelf lives.
Asked what he foresees in the sport, he said, “I don’t have a crystal ball.”
Follow question: “You don’t want to speculate?”
That had to rank among the shorter answers in a career of commendable answers, rivaled later in the session by his reply to the question, “Is it going to be a conscious thing for you going forward to try and sidestep that narrative?”
Answer, without spite: “Yep.”
“I feel for him,” two-time U.S. Open champion and commentator Curtis Strange said last week in an ESPN conference call with reporters, “because I think — I really, truly believe this — this LIV conversation the last year and a half, maybe two years, with him being somewhat of the voice and being involved in the schedule and the meetings and the phone calls, I think it’s taken a lot away from his golf. … ‘Exhausted’ is the wrong word, but it’s fatigued him a bit. When you leave this game just a little bit focus-wise, it will affect you.”
Strange soon said: “Thank goodness for Rory McIlroy and the people that take the responsibility to be on the board and have a voice and put their time and energy in that, because we need those players. We have to have those players, and we happen to have one who’s one of the best players in the world, which brings credibility to the board and brings weight and their voice carries weight. So thank goodness for people like that, but unfortunately it does weigh on them a little bit.”
Of course, that weighing didn’t halt three wins in the 2021-22 season, including the Tour Championship, and $8,654,566 in on-course earnings, for a great player whose totals in the major-less seasons since Louisville would be 14 wins and $48,118,959. Those numbers help fuel the bafflement of the whole nine years, the whole 0-for-32 of it, for a player of such unusual quality.
Meanwhile, his world ranking still shines from No. 3.
Meanwhile again, the bafflement blurs the hope about the fact that two of the next five majors will happen at places McIlroy won majors — Royal Liverpool in England and Valhalla in Louisville — because so did the 2021 PGA Championship. (It was in Kiawah Island, S.C. He finished tied for 49th.)
For a bonus of hopelessness for this 33rd major, there came an issue with McIlroy’s gorgeous and revered swing, a matter noticed through television by that brightest of observers, an Eldrick T. Woods of Florida, as reported by Eamon Lynch of Golf Channel. Tiger Woods will miss this major but could influence it via McIlroy, even if such a thought dabbles in unwanted hope.
“Yeah,” McIlroy said, “just club getting a little bit out of position at the top and then sort of the sequence of events that follow from there. Club face was getting a bit too open on the way back, really struggling to square it on the way down, and then sort of re-closure was getting a little too fast, throwing my hands on it, and sort of started to get the miss going both ways, especially at Quail Hollow. So trying to sort of tighten the start lines up a little bit, keep a little bit more strength in the club face, feel a little bit more squareness through the swing. That’s sort of what I’ve been working on over the last week or so.”
At one point, he said, “I think I’m close.”