Rory McIlroy hosts the Irish Open at Ballyliffin this week and is in dire need of some good form. Will he find his game at home?
One round of professional golf has the ability to make or break a player’s season and the potential to reshape their entire career. Take this year’s Masters Tournament for example. Patrick Reed produced one of the gutsiest rounds of his life and will now forever don the green jacket. Then there was Rory McIlroy.
The Northern Irishman, who played alongside Reed in the final pairing, was just one decent round away from becoming the sixth player in history to complete the career Grand Slam. Instead, he signed for two-over 74 (only four players shot worse scores) and slipped down the leaderboard to share fifth place.
“I went out on the final day obviously giving myself a chance … I got onto that 1st tee and I was quite nervous,” McIlroy said. “I’ve had a pretty good career, but I know I can do better.”
Since that disappointing afternoon at Augusta National, McIlroy has missed the cut at two of the season’s biggest events – The Players Championship and the US Open – and recorded just two top-10 finishes worldwide.
This week he returns to the European Tour to host the Irish Open at Ballyliffin Golf Club, where he will be desperate to rediscover the form that’s won him four major titles.
But despite his deep connection to the tournament – and his clutch victory in 2016 – McIlroy has not played well at home throughout his professional career. In fact, the former World No.1 has now missed five of the last six cuts at this event.
So why does McIlroy struggle at the Irish Open?
His hosting duties with the Rory Foundation and the pressure from his legion of fans must surely have some effect. But there’s one damming statistic that suggests his natural game is suffering whenever he returns home.
Since turning professional, McIlroy has increased the trajectory of his shots considerably (he is currently ranked sixth in that regard on the PGA Tour). This serves him well off the tee and when he’s attacking soft, receptive greens. But it often wreaks havoc when the wind blows.
"I’ve had a pretty good career, but I know I can do better." – Rory McIlroy
Just look at his opening round of the US Open at Shinnecock Hills. Whipping winds bullied the 29-year-old, who equalled the worst major round of his career with 10 over 80. The conditions caused errant approach shots and ultimately heaped pressure onto his putting.
It was a similar story at St Andrews during the 2010 Open Championship. McIlroy tied (what was then) the lowest round in major history with a nine under 63, before the wind swept him away to an 80 the very next day.
He played tremendously well to capture the 2014 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. But he was on the right side of the draw and played in benign conditions. The same can be said about his victory at the 2016 Irish Open – which was played inland on the Palmer Course at The K Club.
This all begs the question: What will happen at Ballyliffin this week? The 63rd Irish Open could simply add to McIlroy’s homeland woes. Or it could become the crucial stepping stone to finding success at Carnoustie in two weeks’ time.
Four solid rounds on the windswept Glashedy course, which occupies the northernmost point of Ireland, would act as perfect preparation for the challenge that awaits in Scotland for the Open Championship – and McIlroy knows it.
“The Glashedy course, it’s good, it’s one of the toughest links courses in the world,” he said.
McIlroy enters the Irish Open fresh after sharing 12th place at the Travelers Championship a fortnight ago. But he is lacking confidence in his swing.
“I’m just a little uncomfortable over the ball at the minute,” he said. “Just knowing my swing isn’t quite where I want it to be and I’m still working on it. Hopefully just some more practice and a few more reps and seeing some better shots on the course, and I’ll be a little more comfortable.”
That’s somewhat concerning given his reliance on his ball-striking. But he will have consulted his long-time swing coach Michael Bannon – who he has worked with since he was eight years old – to attempt to iron out any kinks.
"It’s always nice to go back and hopefully I can give them something to cheer about this week." – Rory McIlroy
McIlroy has also enjoyed previous success at Ballyliffin, albeit on The Old Links, where he set the course record alongside Sir Nick Faldo in 2006. The 17-year-old prodigy shot 67 to open the newly-renovated course and is looking forward to returning to the club.
“I’ve enjoyed my time up in Ballyliffin, I played quite a lot there as an amateur,” he said. “It’s always nice to go back and hopefully I can give them something to cheer about this week.”
RIGHT: McIlroy won the Irish Open at The K Club in 2016. PHOTO: Getty Images.
But there’s no doubt the crowd-favourite will have his work cut out. Not only will he need to overcome his poor tournament record, he will also be facing the likes of Jon Rahm, who broke numerous tournament records with his dominant six-stroke victory last year.
Should McIlroy find form on this wind-stricken links course, he will certainly justify why the bookies have listed him as one of the favourites to lift the Claret Jug at Carnoustie later this month.