Editor’s Note: June’s edition of Living Golf is a Rory McIlroy special as Shane O’Donoghue spends time with the four-time major winner in Ireland. It premieres across CNN platforms Thursday.
Rory McIlroy is at a pivotal point in his career. And he knows it.
“Right now I’ve had a pretty good career, but I know I can do better,” McIlroy told Living Golf’s Shane O’Donoghue in a reflective interview.
He sits sixth in golf’s world rankings, having won the Arnold Palmer Invitational earlier this year and clinched the big money Tour Championship and FedEx Cup double in late 2016.
Despite this relative success, it’s been almost four years since the 29-year-old last won one of golf’s four major championships.
In the time since McIlroy’s 2014 PGA Championship triumph – his fourth major win in a little over three years – rivals such as Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Justin Thomas have arrived on the scene.
In April, the Northern Irishman had a shot at claiming the one major to have so far eluded him – the Masters.
He went into the final round at Augusta just three shots behind Patrick Reed and heavily tipped to take the Green Jacket.
But a disappointing final-round 74 saw McIlroy lose out to Reed, finishing six shots adrift of the American who won to clinch his first major.
Speaking to CNN Living Golf’s O’Donoghue in his first interview since Augusta, McIlroy was pragmatic about coming up short.
“I went out on the final day obviously giving myself a chance of playing carefree, trying to freewheel and that’s easier said than done,” he explained. “I got onto that first tee and I was quite nervous.”
READ: “I will win the Masters,” says McIlroy
A Masters victory would carry added significance for McIlroy, who needs it to complete a career grand slam of the majors and join an elite club alongside greats such as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
“It’ll happen,” says McIlroy, without a shred of arrogance but rather an innate belief in his own ability.
“I truly believe it’ll happen, I play that golf course well enough, I have five top 10’s in a row,” added McIlroy.
“I’ve given myself a chance, it didn’t quite work out but the more I keep putting myself in those positions, sooner or later it’s going to happen for me.”
For a long time it all looked all too easy for the boy born in Holywood, Northern Ireland.
Introduced to the game by his father Gerry, who himself is a low handicap golfer, McIlroy Jr. soon captured the attention of those in the game with junior and amateur victories around the world.
In 1999, aged nine, McIlroy appeared on Irish television chipping balls into a washing machine having just won the World Championship for the nine to 10 age group.
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Padraig Harrington, who won three majors in the space of 13 months between 2007 and 2008, was initially skeptical when he first heard of this prodigious talent coming through the ranks.
”You know this is what had been foretold from two years of age with Rory but in all sports you hear about great talent that never make it,” Harrington told Living Golf.
“You know for everyone like Rory McIlroy there are a 100,000 others with great talent who haven’t got there.
“As professionals we can get quite cynical hearing about good amateur players but just wait until they get to the big leagues.
“But he not only had talent, he had all the pressure on him and he delivered.”
Deliver McIlroy certainly did. After turning professional in 2007 at the age of 17, McIlroy won his first pro tournament at the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic..
A monumental collapse on the final day of the Masters in 2011 raised doubts around McIlroy’s mental strength. A four-shot lead going into the final day disintegrated during a wretched, error strewn round of 80.
Questions were asked about his ability to the deliver under pressure. Answers came quickly and emphatically.
Major victories followed; the 2011 US Open and the 2012 PGA Championship, both by eight shots, followed by the 2014 British Open and the 2014 PGA Championship.
With four majors by the age of 25, there was talk of McIlroy coming close to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 wins, or certainly troubling Woods’ total of 14. ‘
‘There was definitely a window there when he was better than the whole field,” says Harrington.
”From 2010 onwards he definitely knew that if he turned up and played his game he was a couple of steps ahead of everybody else.
“His major wins were very much like that and he was just so much better than everybody else. You used to look to see what Rory shot.”
Four years on Milroy is still waiting for his fifth major.
He’s developed a reputation as a streaky player, more like Phil Mickelson than Woods.
And everyone is waiting for McIlroy to get hot once again – especially at Augusta.
”I’d like to think I’ve got at least another 14 to 16 years at trying to do it,” said McIlroy of his quest to win the Masters.
“If you look at Phil aged 47, Tiger at 42, Jack winning the Masters at 46. There’s no reason why my longevity can’t be compared to that as well.
“You might pick one off every couple of years and if you have a long career that could add up to a lot of majors and place you amongst some of the best careers in golf.
”When I decide to hang the sticks up and call it a day that’s what I’m going to be judged on … I know that the tally that I have at the minute can be added to.”
Having competed alongside and against the Northern Irishman for over a decade, Harrington believes McIlroy’s career is far from complete.
”He’s won four majors but I’ve gone on record and said this before, that’s a disappointment for him,” says Harrington.
“The expectation should be to go on and win upwards of nine majors maybe. That’s putting a lot of pressure on him internally and externally.
“People want more from Rory McIlroy.”