MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Winston Churchill once said that “success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” He very well could have been speaking of Rory McIlroy, who after missing the cut at the 2019 British Open in his native Northern Ireland – arguably the most disappointing result of his career – arrived here in Memphis and for three days looked like his old unbeatable self.
“I feel like this event last year was a bit of a reset for me,” he said during his pre-tournament press conference at TPC Southwind on Wednesday. “I think I referred to it as getting straight back on the horse. It was nice to play well and got myself into the final group. I think I might have been leading by one going into the final day. So, it was good to get into the final group and sort of play some good golf here last year to just sort of move forward from what happened at Portrush.”
But what happened in the final round of last year’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational was another blow to McIlroy’s confidence as Brooks Koepka raced past him, shooting a 65 as McIlroy plummeted to 71 and T-4.
John Wooden, the legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach, once said, “Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.”
McIlroy took the defeat to heart and his reemergence as one of the top players in the world began in defeat here in Memphis. How did it all go so wrong for McIlroy on that Sunday?
“I was a little too passive, a little too, you know, go out there, play, hopefully have a good day, whatever. I was just a little too, not casual about it, but just not as aggressive as I probably should have been,” he explained.
More importantly, McIlroy learned from Koepka and his killer instinct. He admired the way Koepka laid down the hammer and steamrolled any opponent that got in his way.
“If you have a chance to win a trophy, go and grab it with both hands instead of letting it, you know, come to you,” McIlroy said.
It was an approach that McIlroy implemented to great effect when he and Koepka dueled again in late August at the Tour Championship, and this time McIlroy turned the tables.
“The biggest compliment I can give Brooks is I tried to be more like him,” McIlroy said. “At East Lake, I reached out with two hands and grabbed it, so that was the difference.”
McIlroy’s failure has seen him reach new heights and helped him regain the No. 1 ranking from Koepka. It launched McIlroy on to the most consistent run of his career. In addition to winning the Tour Championship, he also grabbed hold of the WGC-HSBC Championship in China and finished in the top five in 10-of-11 events from the Tour Championship through the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.
When asked if he felt defeating McIlroy in Memphis lit a fire under him, Koepka said, “I hope it did. I can only relate it to myself. But any time Rory’s beaten me or JT or Dustin, whoever it might be, a top player, whatever, we go out and play good and they beat my butt, it drives me nuts for a while and always looking for redemption. So, I’m sure it’s pretty much the same for him. He’s been playing good, so hopefully use it as motivation to get myself in gear.”
If any player seems to have lost momentum during the 91-day suspension of play beginning at the Players Championship in March, it is McIlroy, who has yet to record a top-10 finish in four starts since the resumption of play in June. Will recent failures spark another McIlroy run beginning at TPC Southwind this week and continue to TPC Harding Park, where McIlroy once won the WGC Dell Match Play? Will losing the title of world No. 1 be the kick in the pants he needs to make sure Jon Rahm’s reign is a short one? For now, McIlroy said he’ll settle for four solid rounds in a row.
“I haven’t really done that since coming back out of the lockdown,” he said. “If I do put four solid rounds together, then I know I’ll have a chance to win.”