HOYLAKE, England — As Rory McIlroy finished playing 14 holes during a practice round with Shane Lowry on Tuesday morning, the rain started to fall at Royal Liverpool Golf Club again.
McIlroy, the No. 2-ranked player in the world, was asked if playing the course brought back fond memories of the last time he played at Royal Liverpool, when he won the 2014 Open Championship. He captured his fourth major championship a month later at the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky.
“A little bit, not maybe as much as you would think,” McIlroy said. “You know, over the past nine years, a lot has happened in my life and I’ve played a lot of golf tournaments. But, yeah, there’s a few things I remember and it’s nice to get back onto the golf course and sort of refamiliarize myself with it.”
Much has transpired in McIlroy’s life during his nearly nine-year drought without a major championship. He became a husband and father. He won 19 more tournaments around the world. He became a three-time Tour Championship winner. He has been the face of the PGA Tour during its two-year battle with the LIV Golf League for the best players in the world.
McIlroy just hasn’t won another major. He comes into The Open this week with the belief that he’s as close as ever to ending the frustrating drought, especially after winning last week’s Scottish Open.
“The results would suggest so, but, I mean, I’ve just got to go out and play golf,” McIlroy said. “Since 2014, I’ve won everything else there is to win in the game, apart from a major championship, so I know I’m good.”
McIlroy, 34, has come agonizingly close to ending the drought during the past eight-plus seasons. He finished runner-up in three majors since claiming a second Wanamaker Trophy at the 2014 PGA Championship. He tied for second at the 2018 Open Championship, last year’s Masters and the U.S. Open in June, when he had just one birdie in the final round and finished 1 stroke behind winner Wyndham Clark.
Those weren’t the only close calls. At the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews in Scotland last year, McIlroy had a share of the lead heading into the final round. The stage was set for him to end the drought at the home of golf. He carded a final-round 70 and finished third, 2 strokes behind winner Cameron Smith.
“You only get four chances a year, and the top of world golf is so strong at the moment,” Lowry said. “Like I keep saying, you don’t have a god-given right to go out there and win and do well. It’s a battle day in and day out for professional golfers, and that’s what it is.
“Rory’s been consistently one of the best players in the world for the last 12 or 14 years. Since he won here in 2014, he’s done everything in the game there is to do twice, apart from winning a major, and he’s come so close. To be honest, I was sure he was going to win that U.S. Open this year, and I was happy to hear he didn’t take it too hard. He was pretty happy with the way he played and what he did.”
McIlroy bounced back much better from his near-miss at the U.S. Open than he did when he missed the cut at the Masters in April when he was attempting to become only the sixth man to complete the career Grand Slam. He skipped a scheduled start at the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, the next week.
McIlroy said he missed the tournament to focus on his “mental and emotional well-being.” He forfeited $3 million from his $12 million Player Impact Program bonus for missing a second designated event this season.
After tying for 47th at the Wells Fargo Championship in his first start back in early May, McIlroy has strung together six straight top-10 finishes. He tied for seventh at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, and the Memorial, tied for ninth at the RBC Canadian Open and tied for seventh at the Travelers Championship.
“My swing is in a better place,” McIlroy said. “I did a bit of work after Oak Hill. Even though I sort of pieced it together a little bit at Oak Hill, it felt really bad. I did a good bit of work before the Memorial, and I think the Memorial, Canada, U.S. Open and Travelers was a nice four-week stretch to really get comfortable with what I was trying to do, and I’ve just continued on to this little stretch.”
Winning last week on a links course and in windy conditions in Scotland gives him even more confidence.
“I think regardless of whether I won or not, I would’ve come in here confident with the way I’ve played over the past month and a half,” McIlroy said. “My game feels like it’s in good shape, but I think seeing the way I played last week and being able to control my ball in pretty difficult conditions, I feel good about that coming into this week.”
McIlroy told ESPN on Tuesday that he hasn’t watched highlights from 2014 as he prepares to try a win another Claret Jug. He remembers sticking to his game plan and not taking too many chances when he won nine years ago.
“As smart as I’ve been,” McIlroy said, “I don’t know if it’s as free as I’ve been, but definitely as smart. I think I really got my thinking hat on that week and played a lot of strategically good golf. It’s definitely a game of chess out here, and laying back on some bunkers and taking it on with some others. You’re just really trying to commit to the game plan, whatever that game plan is that you choose.”
McIlroy will play a different course this week, as Royal Liverpool Golf Club has undergone extensive changes over the past couple of years. There’s an entirely new par-3 17th hole. The 10th hole was transformed from a par 5 to a par 4. The 15th was lengthened from a par 3 to a par 5. The 16th hole is now a par 4. Despite the changes, McIlroy said Royal Liverpool presents the same challenges.
“It’s basically how I remember it,” McIlroy said. “It’s a very strategic golf course off the tee. It’s very, very well-bunkered. The biggest challenge for this course is avoiding those pot bunkers off the tee.”
McIlroy is a heavy betting favorite to win this week. It wouldn’t be the first time in the past nine years that he was considered the player to beat in a major championship.
“He’s obviously a tremendously talented player, and he’s put himself in position and it hasn’t happened yet,” Jon Rahm said. “I can’t say what goes through his mind, obviously. Undoubtedly he wants it. He wants to get to five [majors]. Not many players have gotten to five. He still has a lot of years to play ahead of him, so I know he wants to keep adding to that tally.
“I’m hoping he does it. I’m pretty sure he will get that number five at some point.”
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