SAN FRANCISCO – In the dying light at Valhalla Golf Club on the 10th day of August of 2014, Rory McIlroy polished off a tense back-nine duel with Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson and Rickie Fowler with a two-putt birdie on the finishing hole to win the PGA Championship.
As he took hold of the massive silver Wanamaker Trophy for a second time, the former Boy Wonder became the fourth player in 100 years to win four majors at 25 or younger. The others? Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
He had won his second consecutive major and four of the most recent 15 played, the others being the 2011 U.S. Open, the 2012 PGA and the 2014 Open Championship. He was the world’s No. 1 player and well on his way toward inclusion into the pantheon of the game’s greatest players.
He hasn’t won a major since.
Although he’s finished in the top-10 on 10 occasions, he’s 0-for-19 in the game’s four biggest events since leaving Valhalla. The stretch hasn’t scarred him psychologically, his stout perspective bolstered by nine PGA Tour titles since his last major triumph, three European Tour wins, two FedEx Cup championships and two rousing victories in the Ryder Cup.
But it is on his mind.
“It doesn’t keep me up at night and I don’t think about it every day, but when I play these major championships, it’s something that I’m obviously reminded of,” McIlroy said Wednesday before a practice round at TPC Harding Park, home to the 102nd PGA Championship. “Look, I would have liked to have won a couple more majors in that time frame, and I feel like I’ve had a couple of decent chances to do so and I just haven’t got the job done.
“But the good thing is we have at least three opportunities this year, and then hopefully if things normalize going forward, four opportunities (next year). I’ve got plenty of opportunities coming my way. I think everyone that stands up here wishes they would have won more and would have played better and all that stuff and I’ve given myself chances, I just haven’t been able to capitalize on them.”
He could very well be in the perfect spot to win his fifth major, as McIlroy won the 2015 World Golf Championships-Cadillac Match Play at TPC Harding Park.
And the moist conditions here, where the thick marine layer, overcast skies and occasional rain have produced a soft course that has no chance of becoming firm and fast, could play right into his hands. Each of his four majors have come when the grounds were on the spongy side. His power also is a distinct advantage on a course that tests all aspects of your game.
But the world No. 3 is more concerned about turning his present form around than adding to his major championship trophy case.
Before COVID-19 halted play on the PGA Tour, McIlroy had posted top-5 finishes in seven consecutive tournaments, including a win in the WGC-HSBC Champions. And the superlative span started two months after he won The Tour Championship and his second FedEx Cup title.
But since the Tour returned in June, McIlroy hasn’t posted a top-10 in five starts.
“Before the world sort of shut down, I was playing some really good golf, consistent. And then having that three-month break, coming back, everything sort of changed,” he said. “It’s just the sharpness and being efficient with my scoring hasn’t been there. Turning the 73s that I’ve shot into 70s. That’s the sort of stuff that I think when you’re sharp and you’re playing a bit and you’re sort of in your groove you’re able to do that a little better, and that’s the stuff that I haven’t been able to do since coming back out here.
“That’s really been the only thing. I feel like my game is really close. Even the mediocre scores that I’ve shot I’ve come off the golf course thinking, well, I actually didn’t play too badly, I just didn’t get a lot out of the round. If I can just keep playing like that and keep being a little bit more efficient with my scoring, I’ll be right where I need to be.”