SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND | If you were to wander into one of many betting shops around this coastal neighborhood, or if you prefer to do your wagering online, there sits Rory McIlroy as a 20:1 pick in the Open Championship that begins Thursday at Royal Birkdale.
Five players – Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm and Sergio García – have shorter odds in the run-up than McIlroy, whose form has rarely matched his expectations in his truncated season.
What does that say, in general, about the lack of a prohibitive favorite this week and, specifically, about McIlroy whose rush of major championship wins stalled after winning the 2014 Open Championship and PGA Championship?
“Good time to back me, I think,” McIlroy said Wednesday, a not-so-sly suggestion that he feels better about his game than perhaps others do given he has missed the cut at both the Irish and Scottish opens the two previous weeks.
Were he in the odds-setting business, McIlroy said he’d probably consider 20:1 a fair price.
“As I say, good week to back me,” McIlroy said again.
The rib injury that has sidelined McIlroy two different times this season remains an occasional nuisance but not a problem, he said. Providing an inventory of his game, McIlroy said everything feels in order, including his putting now that he has settled on one putter rather than trying out several models as he did recently.
Still, since finishing tied for seventh at the Masters, McIlroy has played in the shadows – when he has played.
When McIlroy heads to the first tee, he sees more roses than thorns.
“It’s not as if I can’t see myself shooting a good score,” McIlroy said. “It’s all there. It’s just a matter of putting it all together.”
In a game of inevitable ebbs and flows, McIlroy understands both extremes. When he’s on, he’s probably the best of the best. He has majestic power and a necessary fearlessness. His body language tells the tale as McIlroy seemingly bounces between shots.
Three years ago at Hoylake, McIlroy was in the midst of a purple patch that continued through the PGA at Valhalla. He won the FedEx Cup last year and he has five top-10 finishes in his last nine major championships but a missed cut the U.S. Open last month at Erin Hills, a course seemed perfectly suited to McIlroy’s game, started a frustrating trend.
Good or bad, it seems, nothing lasts forever in golf.
“I think when you ride on the crest of a wave, it’s easy to get caught up with those expectations and you start believing them. And of course, like I have been able to play golf in stretches that if I continued that type of golf for six, seven, eight years, yes, I would be able to win a lot more. But I think golf is – it’s so fluid and so you’re always trying to evolve. You’re always trying to figure out what the best way is to get the best out of yourself …
“When I won those three tournaments in ’14 and I was where I was in the game, yeah, of course, I thought, okay, I really can keep this going and I can become — I was going into The Masters the next year thinking I can win the Grand Slam, I can do this, I can do that, and some things just come along that you don’t expect, whether it be an injury, whether it be — well, that’s really been a couple of injuries the last couple of years, and that sort of stops me in my tracks.
“But I’ve still got plenty of time to … rekindle those feelings and that sort of play. And I really don’t feel I’m that far away from it right now, but even if the results don’t suggest it.
“I wish I was here being the No. 1 player in the world and won a couple more majors and whatever, but I haven’t. And I’m in a place where I’m trying to figure out how I get back to that position where I was this time two and a half, three years ago. But I’m working on it. 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.”
Whatever the odds.