Just three years ago, Rory McIlroy was the best player in the world without a trace of argument. He won the final two majors of the year, with a World Golf Championship title in between. He had reason to believe his reign would last as long as he wanted it to.
Now he’s simply trying to get back into the conversation.
The starkest reminder of the state of his game was not so much missing three cuts in his last four tournaments. It was being told on the eve of the British Open that the bookies listed him at 20-1 to win at Royal Birkdale.
“Good time to back me,” McIlroy said. “I mean, look, if I was a betting company and I saw my form over the past few weeks, yeah, that’s probably a fair enough price. But again, all it takes is one week for those odds to go back.”
He has been through these mini-slumps more than once in the 10 years since he first played the British Open at Carnoustie. McIlroy missed four of five cuts in 2012, including his title defense in the U.S. Open, and ended the summer by winning the PGA Championship to return to No. 1 in the world.
This one has been the most aggravating because it involves injury.
The hairline rib fracture he suffered in January during the South African Open is no longer an issue, but it forced him to sit out nearly two months, and then he played only once in two months between the Masters and the U.S. Open in part because it was acting up.
It all led to what McIlroy describes as a start-and-stop year, one that to this point doesn’t include a trophy.
“But I’m in good spirits,” McIlroy said. “I feel like it’s all coming together. I’m just waiting for that round or that moment or that week where it sort of clicks and I'll be off and running. I’ve had little periods like this before in my career, and I’ve been able to bounce back from them. I’d say I was in worse positions than this. I feel like my game … the pieces are all there, it’s just about trying to fit them together.”
As for his odds?
That speaks to a broader picture of the 146th edition of the British Open, which starts Thursday at Royal Birkdale. Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world, and Jordan Spieth have taken turns as the favorite by the bookies. Right behind them is Jon Rahm, the dynamic 22-year-old from Spain who already has won twice this year. Masters champion Sergio Garcia is right up there.
There is no clear favorite.
There is no clear plot that is any different from the previous few majors, except for the U.S. Open held on a new course in Wisconsin.
Johnson was close to being a dominant figure when he won three straight tournaments against the strongest fields of the year at the time, and then he slipped down the stairs on the eve of the Masters, wrenched his back and didn’t swing a club for a month.
Jason Day ended last year at No. 1 in the world, and then found himself emotionally wrapped up in tending to his mother, who was diagnosed with lung cancer.
McIlroy wouldn’t have seen this coming at the end of last year when he won the FedEx Cup.
“But these things sort of crop up out of nowhere and they challenge us,” he said.
Maybe it’s one shot, one round, one week to get that spark. That’s what Johnson is looking for since his return from back injury.
“It’s taken me a long time to get everything back to feeling where it was,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to get back to that point. It’s definitely a lot harder.”
When he won the British Open down the coast at Royal Liverpool in 2014, McIlroy mentioned an adage he first heard from Tom Weiskopf. When a player is going well, he can’t imagine what it was like to play poorly. And when he’s playing badly, he can’t imagine what it was like to play great.
So where is he now?
“I feel like I can hit the ball in the fairway, and from there I can hit the ball on the green,” McIlroy said. “And if I get my line, I can put the ball in the hole from there. So it’s not bad. It’s not as if I can’t see myself shooting a good score. It’s all there. It’s just a matter of putting it all together.”
He has slipped so far from the dominant force in golf – McIlroy hasn’t been at No. 1 since September 2015 – that he could win the next two majors and still probably not reach Johnson at the top of the ranking.
His odds would certainly get better, just like when he was the favorite at just about every major. He still remembers those days.
“When you ride on the crest of a wave, it’s easy to get caught up with those expectations and you start believing them,” he said. “When I won those three tournaments in ‘14 and I was where I was in the game, of course I thought, ‘OK, I really can keep this going.’ … And some things just come along that you don’t expect.
“I’m in a place where I’m trying to figure out how I get back to that position where I was,” he said. “I’m trying to get back there and I’m doing everything I can. And hopefully the start of that crest of a wave happens this week.”
Facts and figures for the British Open
Facts and figures for the British Open, which starts Thursday in Southport, England:
Site: Royal Birkdale.
Length: 7,156 yards.
Field: 156 players
Playoff (if necessary): 4 holes, aggregate score.
Prize money: $10,250,000.
Winner’s share: $1,845,000.
Defending champion: Henrik Stenson.
Last year: In a duel that rates among the best in history, Henrik Stenson closed with a 63 to beat Phil Mickelson by three shots at Royal Troon. Stenson joined Johnny Miller as the only players to shoot 63 in the final round to win a major. He finished at 264 (20 under) to set the major championship scoring record. Stenson and Mickelson were so far ahead of everyone else that the next closest player to Mickelson was 11 shots back.
British Open champions at Royal Birkdale: Peter Thomson (1954, 1965), Arnold Palmer (1961), Lee Trevino (1971), Johnny Miller (1976), Tom Watson (1983), Ian Baker-Finch (1991), Mark O'Meara (1998), Padraig Harrington (2008).
Cashing in: The British Open is paying its prize money in American dollars instead of British pounds for the first time.
Key statistic: First-time winners have captures the last seven majors.
Noteworthy: Dustin Johnson has not played the weekend at a major since he tied for ninth last year at the British Open.
Quoteworthy: “You get so excited for these tournaments. They’re the biggest and best tournaments in the world. And ultimately my career is going to be defined by how I do in these tournaments.” – Rory McIlroy.
TV: Thursday-Friday, 12:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Golf Channel); Saturday, 3:30-6 a.m. (Golf Channel), 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. (NBC); Sunday, 3-6 a.m. (Golf Channel), 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. (NBC).