Can Rory McIlroy still win when it matters most?

Each week we ask our panel of writers, PGA members and golf industry experts to weigh in with their views on the hot topics of the day.

It’s been over 5 years since Rory McIlroy won a major and he recently missed the cut in the Open Championship at Royal Portrush, where for a lot of reasons he was expected to win. This past week he held the 54-hole lead in the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational and was paired with World #1 Brooks Koepka in the final round for what was billed as an epic showdown between two of the world’s best. Rory withered on Sunday. What’s your take on McIlroy’s performance in big events? Does he wilt under too much pressure? Can he reliably be considered a top player if he can’t win when it matters most?

Jim Deeks, Fairways Magazine (@jimdeeks): Rory seems to be turning into the Tom Weiskopf of his era.  Universally recognized for his talent at striking the ball, but just not able to close the deal when expected.  He’s still got 8-10 years to prove himself, to himself and to his fans, but clearly the early promise has not manifested itself yet.  A couple of major wins from now, and everyone will forget today’s miscues.

Michael Schurman, Master Professional / Life Member, PGA of Canada: What we are seeing with Koepka is a ‘true’ champion. It took him a while to develop but then that can be said of many great champions. Not every champion is so gifted they win at young ages and continue throughout their entire career. Undeniably, Rory is a wonderful player who burst out of the ‘gate’ with major championship victories and since then has stalled. Some think his demise was the huge sponsor contracts that eroded his desire. But I think it’s more than that. Rory won big when he arrived at the course with his game in full gear. He could dominate fields with ease but he, like many others, can play when they are on but can’t win when they aren’t. Koepka has that unique ability rarely seen (Hogan, Nicklaus, Woods, Tom Brady, Roger Federer, Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan) who can ‘bring it’ when they want it most. Koepka has heard an endless silence regarding his accomplishments because he doesn’t do well in the regular tour events but this week he had the extra motivation of being paired with Rory. Sure, he wanted to win the event but more than that he wanted to beat Rory ‘head-to-head’.

Dave Kaplan, Freelance Writer (@davykap): It’s certainly been a theme for him over the last few years, especially at Augusta National. But then again, he won the Players earlier this year and is still probably the best driver of the golf ball in the world. Rory’s getting to that point where he is just becoming a streaky player, which can be a really good thing heading into a major. Unfortunately, he just hasn’t been that hot at any major in recent memory other than the second round at the Open this year. With his skill set, if he were to come into a major on fire in the future, I have no doubt that he would lay waste to the competition.

TJ Rule, Golf Away Tours (@GolfAwayTJ): Rory is certainly more hit or miss than most top players.  He can be dominant like he was at the 2011 US Open and this year’s Canadian Open, and then completely chokes more often than he should.  Everyone chokes occasionally, he just does it a bit more than he should for an elite player.  I wonder if he was intimidated by Brooks being such a good big tourney player.  As is often the case for someone who is knows as a premier ball striker, it was his putter that let him down on Sunday, missing a 3-footer early in the round that would have given him some momentum, and his putting struggled the rest of the day.  He is definitely still a top player, but probably won’t win as often as he should given the number of times he’s in contention.

Hal Quinn, Freelance Writer, Vancouver: It is a generational pleasure to watch Rory hit drivers and irons. It is a life sentence to the institution to watch him putt. He played great tee to green all four days (or as Rolfing is wont to say, “all week long”) and had he putted anywhere close to how he rolled it 4-5 years ago, no one could spell Koepka. Just guessing, but the caddie change changed a lot of his reads. He has to start playing the first rounds in the Majors as if they matter. And start putting!!

Peter Mumford, Fairways Magazine (@FairwaysMag): Unfortunately for Rory, it always seems that his record is measured more for what might have been than what it is. So far this year he has 12 Top 10’s in 16 starts with wins at the RBC Canadian Open and The Players Championship. That’s an awesome season for anybody. He has 16 PGA Tour wins and four majors. That’s an awesome career for anybody. As for the recent MC in Ireland and the weak Sunday effort against Koepka, it happens. But don’t worry about Rory. He’s only 30. Controlling your emotions in big events and under immense pressure comes with experience. I think he’s still learning how to do it and I believe he’ll get it. Then he’ll have another long run as World #1 and win more majors.

Tom Watson announced that last week’s Senior British Open would be his last. While he may not be retiring completely, the 8-time major winner has acknowledged that as he approaches his 70th birthday, he just doesn’t have the tools to compete anymore. His Hall of Fame career is filled with dozens of memorable moments. What’s your favourite highlight from Watson’s career?

Deeks: Two highlights spring to mind: The Duel in the Sun at Turnberry with Jack in 1977, which was beyond thrilling; and the oh-so-heartbreaking loss in the Open Championship to Stewart Cink in 2009, at the age of 59. There are many, many other highlights in his exemplary career.  But a couple of personal lowlights, too, for me.  Tom shocked me at a private dinner many years ago with some of his incredibly right-wing opinions.  He was going through some issues at the time, but his lips were loose, and he didn’t win any fans that evening.  And in 1982, when he won the US Open at Pebble Beach, and the Open Championship at Troon, he still refused to come to the Canadian Open to win the “trifecta” of national championships that Lee Trevino had done a decade earlier.  Even the lure of a $1 million bonus (if he came to Glen Abbey and won) wouldn’t change his mind… because he just didn’t like Glen Abbey.  All that aside, I raise a glass of Dom to one of the all-time great sportsmen of the last 50 years.

Schurman: My best memory of Tom Watson isn’t a golf one. Jack Nicklaus had stopped coming to play in Canada and getting his autograph was becoming difficult. I was given a beautiful photo of him that having it autographed would make it special. The US Open was in Detroit and Jack was playing. I found out his starting time which was around 7:30 and drove from Toronto to the course. I thought. no big deal, I’ll sit in front of the clubhouse, Jack’s courtesy car will drive up, he’ll get out, I hand him the picture, he signs, thanks very much and I’m gone. Just as the car arrived, Jack’s caddy saw me and started yelling at me. “You stupid fool! It’s the US Open, not some rinky-dink tournament!” Of course, I stepped back and by now Jack was out of the car observing what was taking place. Then up drove a second car and Tom Watson got out. He too stopped to watch this caddy waving his arms and yelling and me standing there. He came over and asked me what was going on. I told him I had driven all night to get Jack’s autograph. He said, “Let me see the picture”. I showed it to him. He said, “My, that’s a beauty”. Then he said to Jack “Jack, come here, please. This man drove all night from Toronto to get your autograph. Would you be kind enough to sign it”? Jack took the pen and signed it, then walked away. Tom shook my hand and wished me a pleasant day. That’s my Tom Watson memory.

Kaplan: I’m not old enough to have seen most of Watson’s accomplishments by the time I started following golf closely. As a result, my favourite Watson memory is when he almost won the 2009 Open at Turnberry. Had he just parred that final hole, it would have been one of the most incredible and unexpected results in any tournament ever. Unfortunately, Watson came up short on that 72nd hole and ultimately lost to Stewart Cink in a four-hole playoff, but the resilience and determination he showed that week immediately turned me into a Watson fan.

Rule: My favourite highlight is Tom being in contention as a 59-year-old at Turnberry.  Sure, many would consider that his biggest disappointment, but let’s keep things in perspective.  He almost won the Open Championship nearly a decade into his Senior Tour career!  It was an amazing performance and one that had me glued to the tv.  It’s a shame his 8-iron travelled so far on the 72 hole and he didn’t have the nerve to get up and down to win, but it was enthralling and is definitely my favourite Tom Watson moment.

Quinn: Okay, Pebble Beach, etc. etc. My favourite was way back in 1975, B&W TV, the 18-hole playoff with Jack Newton. It was raining, it was classic links, Carnoustie, and on the 18th playoff hole, Watson sunk a 20-footer to win his first Major on his first trip to The Open. The Duel in the Sun was two years later, but Watson cemented his love of links golf right there. Sadly, the most vivid memory is the hot 8-iron into the 18th at Turnberry in 2009 that handed Stewart Cink a Major. That is definitely the least favourite.

Mumford: I must admit that for most of his career, I was not a Tom Watson fan. Definitely had to respect his skills and tenacity but as someone firmly entrenched in the Nicklaus rooting section, it was hard to cheer for the competition, especially the seemingly humourless Tom Watson. That was even more true in 1977 when Tom beat Jack at the Masters, then again at Turnberry in their famous Duel in the Sun. Over the years, I developed grudging respect for Watson but became a real fan when Watson made a visit to Magna Golf Club in 2008 for a Prostrate Cancer pro am. There were only two of us in the Media Centre when Watson and Bernhard Langer came in for a bite between nines. Watson asked if he could join us and Langer followed. Tom was inquisitive about the course, golf in Canada and our opinions on a lot of issues. Of course, he had his own views too, which he stated very succinctly. Afterwards, on the back nine, he not only showed what a brilliant shot maker he was, he also proved to be a great entertainer. And funny too. In 2009, when Watson had a chance to win his sixth Open Championship at the age of 59, I was pulling as hard for him as I ever did for Nicklaus. Damn that Stewart Cink.

A lot was made of Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee playing his way into the Senior British Open. He shot 76-74 to miss the cut. Does his performance on the golf course affect the way you view his performance in the studio?

Deeks: I’m sure Brandel could shoot 65 on any golf course, anywhere, any day of the week.  But playing under the pressure of a “major”?  That’s a horse of a different colour.  I give him credit for shooting 76-74, not 86-84, which wouldn’t have surprised anyone.  I’d say his scores gave me just a tad more respect for him as a television analyst.

Schurman: To a certain extent yes! TV announcers require credibility when discussing a golf event and when they can add a personal perspective it enhances the story. However, this question is somewhat parallel to the question “Does a Golf Instructor have to be a good player”? Of course not! But, if you can ‘play’ and teach, your playing ability is an asset. By no means does being able to play guarantee you can teach any more than being taught how to teach by a very accomplished teacher. Neither is a guarantee, but both are assets to someone is a good teacher. Brandel’s performance earned him the right to play! What would your question be if he had won the trophy?

Kaplan: LOL. No. He could’ve won the dang tournament and still would have been the same irritating, and irritable, talking head in my books.

Rule: Really? A lot was made of it?  I honestly didn’t even know he was playing in it until I saw this question and had to look it up.  Perhaps I’ve been living under the social media rock the past week, but it didn’t hit my radar.  I don’t think his performance on the course has any impact at all on his performance in the studio.  He’s just as big of an idiot regardless of how he plays.  To be honest, he does provide some very good insights in the studio, and if he’d just stay away from some of the strong opinions and keep them to himself, I may actually watch him on the Golf Channel…. sorry, on GOLF (man that just sounds weird).

Quinn: I’ve met and had some good chats with Chamblee. Really nice guy. He turned that one win in Vancouver into a TV career based on his great personality and, I think, incisive analysis of Tour swings and Tour mentalities. Coming out of the booth to shoot a couple of pretty nice numbers adds to his cred behind the mike. Duval at The Open, not so much.

Mumford: Perhaps his role as a part-time player gives him a bit more insight or allows him short-cuts to player interviews that others may have to work harder to get but the idea that an analyst needs to be an accomplished player is bunk. Being an analyst is a skill all by itself. Too many talking heads (and writers too) arrive at conclusions based on sketchy research or what’s trending on social media. Chamblee is the best prepared golf analyst on TV and whether you agree with him or not, you have to admire his arguments for being exceedingly well researched and brilliantly presented. That performance comes out of his mind, not off his scorecard.

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