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Why 2023 is possibly the most important year yet for Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy faces into a big year© Getty Images

Roy CurtisIndependent.ie

IF he commences another year in the Arabian desert, then escaping the metaphorical golfing Sahara in which he has been incarcerated is the alpha and omega of Rory McIlroy’s 2023 journey.

A coherent argument can be made to support a thesis that the season which he launches in Dubai next week is perhaps the most significant of this electrifying talent’s professional career.

The sense is, that much like the Irish rugby team at the World Cup, McIlroy’s number one global ranking will feel hollow, even bogus, unless it is franked with a defining success on a stage that truly matters.

Majors are the master switch turning on every light in golf and Rory has endured an improbable 3,082 days of darkness since his most recent sunburst at Valhalla in 2014.

A quote from the late, celebrated basketball coach John Wooden, a figure of reverence as much for his wisdom as his towering achievements, distils the accumulating effect of that near nine-year ebbing of the spirit down to its essence.

“Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.”

Deploying that yardstick, zero from 31 (Rory missed the 2015 Open Championship through injury) in majors since that PGA Championship success nine summers ago, damns the most naturally gifted player since Tiger Woods.

That journeymen pros like Danny Willett, Jimmy Walker and Gary Woodland have claimed one of the bigger prizes while McIlroy futilely searched for another season of major fire adds to the frustration.

And that this famine has coincided with peak golfing years – Woods won 12 of his 15 majors in the corresponding age period where Rory has drawn a blank - further contributes to the sense of something slipping beyond the soon to be 34-year-old's grasp.

Of course, one thunderous summer could radically and emphatically transform that narrative.

McIlroy is adjudicated differently to all other athletes born on this island. His glories are often greeted with a shrug, his relative failures placed under a forensic microscope.

His life has been one of phenomenal accomplishment, but still we seek more.

Only those who fail to understand the potential for greatness that resides within his diminutive frame would regard this as unfair.

It does not feel like any sort of contradiction to celebrate Rory’s phenomenal achievements, to declare him an all-time great of Irish sport in one breath, and an underachiever in the next.

Here is a player who, at his best, is capable of feats of alchemy beyond even the best of the rest, who adds a unique spark of voltage to every tournament in which he tees it up.

Not quite at The Tiger’s untouchable peak of magnetic charisma, but just a rung or two below, as close as any have got to golf’s 21st century deity. And ahead of all his peers: Rahm, Scheffler, Thomas, Morikawa, Johnson, and his good friend and fellow Irish titan, Shane Lowry.

It is why some of us feel compelled to interpret McIlroy’s 2022 season in a way some find unjust, others outrageous.

Our line of reasoning has it that, despite his frequent brilliance, the pyrotechnic detonations that saw him finish the year lording it over the field in both the PGA and DP (European) Tours, while also seizing the number one spot on the world rankings, Rory’s impressive body of work still falls short of what might be deemed an unqualified success.

The absence of a major must, inevitably, apply an asterisk to his bulging catalogue of successes.

Yes, his play was often so accomplished as to verge on extra-terrestrial and unquestionably his 2022 portfolio would have amounted to the season of a lifetime for almost any of his mortal rivals.

But Rory is not judged as a mortal: He is measured by the Tiger or Nicklaus metric, the one where majors stand alone as the currency by which immortality is purchased.

Here, after all, is the player Jack Nicklaus – the 18-time major winner who has always been careful to ration the hype he splashes on the next generations – gushed back in 2014 could pocket “15 to 20 majors” before he was done.

McIlroy has amassed 17 major top-tens since that triumph at Valhalla nearly a decade ago. On one level that seems like an eloquent repudiation of hope dwindling to a whisper.

But the bulk of those finishes fall into two categories: The first, like his late charge into runner-up spot at Augusta last April, sees Rory igniting when the pressure is off, sparkling in the final round with the tournament long beyond reach.

The second, as with St Andrews six months ago, is of Rory propelling himself into pole position over the first three days only to stall with the finishing line in sight.

It is not, as some who baulk at any criticism of their hero suggest, to be remotely anti-McIlroy to raise reasonable questions about potential mental majors fragility, or to wonder if about any corrosive effects on the psyche of the failures to fire the killshot when he has the field in his cross-hairs.

McIlroy was frequently immense in 2022.

It is for that very reason that the initial statement about this coming season being a defining one in his golfing life feels legitimate.

Last year brought spectacular progress, the player who could manage only a single top 40 in the 2021 majors, delivering figures of 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 8th in last season’s Masters, PGA, Open Championship and US Open.

There will be an undeniable sense of anti-climax if he cannot now take the next step and translate exceptional form into a fifth career. It will surely feel like a ripping in the chest for the player himself.

McIlroy, a bright, curious, inherently decent man with an in-depth knowledge of the game's history, understands he has been imbued with a rare and extraordinary talent.

He could win five times on tour this year, hold the winning putt in the Ryder Cup, enjoy a fairy tale return to the Irish Open podium and cement his position at the head of the world rankings.

Yet, because he is so good, even such an intoxicating exhibition of his genius would feel somehow incomplete without an accompanying major.

The potential to deliver something immortal is bestowed on only a tiny few and, with it, comes a requirement to deliver a career that touches the stars on the days that matter.

Wooden advises that athletes measure themselves by what they should achieve with their ability.

By that unforgiving metric, nine peak seasons without even one trek to the major mountain top would feel like a seat on Olympus alongside golf’s divinities slipping beyond Rory’s grasp.


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