Monday, July 15, 2024

Rory McIlroy’s collapse at US Open has striking resemblance to a heated rival: Greg Norman

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When his final par putt of the U.S. Open made a cruel right turn on Sunday evening, a stroke propelled by a decade of fear and fate, Rory McIlroy doomed himself to a destiny that should burn far more than merely losing another major championship.

In the annals of golf history, there are two names that can now be linked together as the most talented players of their generation who underachieved in the sport’s most important events.

One is McIlroy. The other is Greg Norman.

If you don’t understand why that matters, rewind back two years when McIlroy won the Canadian Open while LIV Golf was making its initial push to secure the game’s best players with a bottomless pit of Saudi money.  

McIlroy was the poster boy for PGA Tour loyalty. Norman was the face of LIV. The tension between them was not just about business but had clearly become personal.

“This is a day I’ll remember for a long, long time – 21st PGA Tour win, one more than someone else,” McIlroy said on CBS that afternoon. “That gave a little more extra incentive today and I’m happy to get it done.”

The “someone else,” of course, was Norman: Winner of 20 PGA Tour titles and two British Opens but whose legacy is inexorably linked to losing majors in brutal fashion, most notably the 1996 Masters when he blew a six-shot lead beginning the final round.

The nasty, behind-the-scenes business of golf brought them into conflict. The even nastier on-course bungles under the heat of major championship pressure have brought them into the same breath of history.

After Sunday’s collapse over the final four holes at Pinehurst No. 2 – including an inexcusably poor club choice on No. 15 and two missed putts inside of four feet to hand the trophy to Bryson DeChambeau – the notion that McIlroy may never win another major championship is now legitimate.

He’s just 35, has shown no signs of slippage in the nuts-and-bolts of his game, and contends at almost every major. By the numbers, he still has 40 chances or so to add to a tally that seemed limitless when he won his fourth at age 25.

But the scar tissue that has accumulated over the last decade is real. Sunday was the evidence playing out in real time for millions of golf fans to see. 

Over the last several years, McIlroy has had so many chances and near-misses that his failure to close the deal was definitely a thing. But none of them seemed quite like classic choke jobs. Maybe a bad Thursday or Friday put him too far behind. Or the putter went cold on the weekend. Or someone else just went out and played the round of their life on Sunday.

None of that happened this time.

For most of the final round, McIlroy did everything he needed to do for a second U.S. Open trophy. He drove the ball almost perfectly. He started pouring in putts from distance. Walking off the 14th hole, he had a two-shot lead over DeChambeau, who was all over the place with his driver and trying to hang onto pars like a wet bar of soap.

Pinehurst is an unforgiving track with danger lurking around every corner. But at that point, it was finally up to McIlroy to end his 10-year major drought. He didn’t have to chase anyone, didn’t have to worry about getting nipped from behind by an improbable birdie streak.

All he had to do was not give it away. Instead, he did the following:

No. 15: Picked way too much club on the par-3, cooking it over the green to a terrible spot and making bogey.

No. 16: Landed his approach in a great spot about 27 feet away, but three-putting with a lip-out from 2 ½ feet. 

No. 17: Scrambled for par from the left bunker after a poor shot into another par-3.

No. 18: Made one of his worst driver swings of the week, caught a terrible lie in the native grass, hacked out short of the green and chipped it past the hole for a difficult 3 foot, 9 inch putt but one he should have made anyway.

It is, without question, the biggest debacle of his career. It’s his 1996 Masters. It’s his magnum opus choke.

Over the last year, McIlroy’s stance on the PGA Tour getting into business with the Saudis has softened as his idealism ran headlong into reality. Now, he needs to get comfortable with the idea that unless he can figure out a way to break this major-less streak, he and Norman will come up in the same sentences far more often than he should be comfortable with.

They are both considered the best of their generation with a driver in their hands.

They are both so consistently good that they could win a lot and contend in any tournament on any kind of course. 

They both have a big hole in their résumé at Augusta National.

And now, it’s undeniable: At a similar stage of their careers, they did not fulfill their potential when it mattered most.

Norman won a couple more tournaments after the 1996 Masters, but he was never the same force within the game after that collapse. By simple virtue of his physical talent and age, it seems unlikely McIlroy will suffer the same fate. It would be shocking if he didn’t truly contend at several more majors.

But the only conclusion you can draw from watching McIlroy take a machete to his chances Sunday is that the demons are real. And over the next several years, he will either go down the Norman path and be remembered as a guy who should have won a whole lot more or the Phil Mickelson path and knock off a couple legacy-boosting majors when he wasn’t expected to.

Mickelson, too, gave away more than his share of chances – especially at the U.S. Open, which he never won. But with the British Open he won at age 43 and the out-of-nowhere PGA Championship he pulled off in 2021, nobody puts Mickelson in the Norman category. With six majors, he is simply the second-best player of his era and one of the best ever.

But the interesting thing about Mickelson is that he didn’t win his first until he was 33, just slightly younger than McIlroy is now. McIlroy kind of did it in reverse, collecting the big wins when he was too young to even feel the pressure of time and responsibility to the game.

And now, when he reaches for that magic and needs it the most, it just doesn’t seem to be there.

Sunday should have been a day for McIlroy to get on the Mickelson trajectory, end the major drought and move the conversation toward how many he will rack up before it’s all said and done. Instead, he leave Pinehurst just like Norman left Augusta 28 years ago with more questions than ever about when – or if – it’ll ever happen again.

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