Three years removed from his epic run, can Rory McIlroy start another?

July 19, 2017

SOUTHPORT, England — Depending on your betting site of choice, there should be roughly four to eight players with better or equal odds to win the 146th Open Championship than Rory McIlroy.

On the eve of the Open here at Royal Birkdale, the man who already has one claret jug but has struggled with his putter, missed three of the last four cuts and hasn’t won since September was told he was 20-to-1 to win.

“Good time to back me, right?” McIlroy said with a smirk.

If only predicting McIlroy’s prospects were that easy.

He hasn’t won a major in his last nine stars after he grabbed back-to-back titles at the 2014 Open and PGA Championship. His past six major starts have been a mixed bag as well, much like his current form: three missed cuts, three top-10s.

After missing the cut at the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, major winner Steve Elkington questioned the drive of the rich, private-jet-flying 28-year-old. McIlroy, who fired back at Elk, was asked a similar question about his ambition and hunger Wednesday.

“I want to win this week. I don’t need to win,” McIlroy said. “A second Open Championship isn’t going to change my life. But I want to win. But, yeah, I’m still as ambitious now as I was starting off my career, if not more so now because I know what I’ve achieved and I know what I can achieve. … I definitely haven’t lost the hunger that I’ve always had.”

Despite missing the cut at the Scottish Open last week, McIlroy said he saw positive signs in his putting, which has been his Achilles’ heel much of the season. He experimented with several models at the Travelers the week after the U.S. Open and has since settled on a blade.

He’s also added a 16-degree, graphite-shafted 1-iron to his bag. He says he can hit it a cool 280 or 290 yards in calm conditions, and he plans to hit it plenty this week as Royal Birkdale demands precision from the tee. Several players have similar thinking this week. Phil Mickelson didn’t carry a driver for a practice round Tuesday (instead he had a pair of 3-irons) on a course where Johnny Miller said he hit 1-iron off the tee on 12 of 14 holes when he won here in 1976.

“I feel like this is a golf course where you can’t really take it on too much,” McIlroy said. “You can’t cut it across corners. You can’t take on some of the angles or bunkers that are here. This golf course dictates how you play it. … It’s one of those courses that you know you go out here this week and shoot four 68s or 69, you’re going to have a really good chance to win.”

When McIlroy, ranked fourth in the world, tees off 9:48 a.m. ET Thursday (2:48 p.m. local), it will be exactly three years to the day since he lifted his first claret jug at Hoylake. That was also the start of three straight victories and the best run of his career. His win at the WGC-Bridgestone that year vaulted him to No. 1 in the world, a spot he held for nearly a year, and his PGA Championship win the next week gave him his fourth major. At the time, he was barely a month older than Jack Nicklaus when Nicklaus won his fourth and 10 months older than Tiger Woods when Woods won his fourth.

“I’ve still got plenty of time to I guess rekindle those feelings and that sort of play,” McIlroy said. “And I really don’t feel I’m that far away from it right now, but even if the results don’t suggest it. So, yeah, 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.”

Twenty-to-one? Place your bets.