By Tim Liotta
Nine Long Years Chasing Number Five
The next. The next. The next.
Go as far back into golf's history as you care to, and the question of who would be the next golfer ready to dominate the major championships has always been front and center.
Who will be the next Tiger Woods? Who would be the next Jack Nicklaus? Who would be the next Ben Hogan? Who would be the next Bobby Jones?
The search for the next great golfer was top of mind at the end of 2014, when Rory McIlroy had won four of the previous 16 major championships, including the last two of 2014, the Open Championship by two shots at Royal Liverpool, followed by the PGA Championship by one shot at the Valhalla Golf Club.
Was major championship golf in 2014 at the doorstep of the next era, the era of Rory McIlroy?
"Yeah, of course, I've heard it and I've read it," said McIlroy prior to the PGA Championship that year. "Sometimes I feel that people are too quick to jump to conclusions and jump on the bandwagon and jump on certain things.
"I've had a great run of golf and I've played well over the past few months.
"Look, I said at the start of the year that golf was looking for someone to put their hand up and sort of become one of the dominant players in the game.
"I felt like I had the ability to do that, and it's just nice to be able to win a few tournaments and get back to where I feel like I should be, which is near the top of the World Rankings and competing in majors and winning golf tournaments.
"So I'm not necessarily sure you can call that an era or the start of an era ... I just need to continue to practice hard and play well, and if I do that, then you know, that's all I can do and try not to read too much of the stuff that's being written, because if you read everything that was being written, I'd turn up at the first tee on Thursday thinking I'd already won the tournament."
That response was prompted laughter across the press room. In between his Open and PGA victories in 2014, Rory also captured his first WGC event, the Bridgestone Invitation at the Firestone Country Club in Akron, OH, giving him three wins in three starts. Prior to the PGA, Phil Mickelson was asked what advice he'd offer Rory.
"I just think that what I saw him doing last week is playing to his strength, which is the driver," Mickelson said. "He's such a great driver of the golf ball.
"Even though the (Firestone Country Club) golf course was fairly tight and hitting fairways is important, he kept hitting drivers and he kept putting the ball in play and he kept playing the course aggressively and making birdies ... I think as long as he continues to keep playing to his strength, he's going to be making birdies and winning golf tournaments.
"He's just a very good talent. We've been waiting a year, year and a half now for it to turn and it's really turned for him and now everything is clicking and firing and he's tough to beat."
Tiger Woods, however, took a more cautionary stance on Rory's style of play.
"Well, you can see - the way he plays is pretty aggressively," said Woods after struggling to a 69th-place finish at the 2014 Open Championship. "When he gets it going, he gets it going. When it gets going bad, it gets going real bad.
"It's one or the other. If you look at his results, he's kind of that way. Very similar to what Phil does. He has his hot weeks and he has his weeks where he's off. And that's just the nature of how he plays the game. It's no right way or wrong way. But it's just the nature of how he plays."
McIlroy went on to beat Mickelson by a shot in the 2014 PGA for his fourth major championship, and by the time he left the Masters in 2016, Rory had two wins, seven top-10s, and had not finished worse than 23rd in his previous nine major championships.
And for nine years, McIlroy has been trying to find the balance between playing aggressively, and capitalizing on his extraordinary ability to drive the golf ball, and the caution needed to avoid the mistakes that would keep him from a chance to win on the Sunday of a major championship.
Here's Rory in 2014 after being asked about finding his "A" game:
"The sort of first half of the year, I felt like there was a lot of good golf in there, but I was just making too many mistakes. But I always felt that the mistakes are much easier to eradicate than if you're not hitting the great shots or you're not making the birdies; I think (great shots) are harder to find, rather than to eradicate some of the bad shots.
"So becoming a little better at maybe just getting rid of a few of those bad shots, not getting on some of these bogey runs that I was getting on at the start of the year. That definitely helped. And then your confidence grows. Your confidence grows and you start to hit more and more good shots.Â You start to shoot better scores and then from there, it's a matter of confidence.
"I mean, I'm not sure if I‑‑ when I say I'm on my "A" Game, I think it's just everything, it just sort of feels comfortable. I feel like I drive the ball well. I hit fairways, I hit greens. I give myself plenty of chances for birdies."
Is that what we're seeing nine years later?
Let's look at the list of Rory McIlroy's approach shots on Sunday at the 2023 U.S. Open (tee shots on par 3s are included, and if it was his second shot on a par 5 that served as an approach, that is noted as well):
1st Hole - Par 5, from 215 yards to green, APPROACH to 33 feet, 6 inches. Two-putt BIRDIE
2nd Hole - From fairway 158 yards to green, APPROACH to 60 feet, 4 inches. Two-putt PAR
3rd Hole - From fairway 99 yards to green, APPROACH to 16 feet, 2 inchese. Two-putt PAR
4th Hole - From tee 237 yards to green, APPROACH to 24 feet, 5 inches. Two-putt PAR
5th Hole - From right rough 144 yards to green, APPROACH to 113 feet. Two-putt from off the green PAR
6th Hole - From right rough 51 yards to green, APPROACH to 30 feet, 11 inches. Two-putt PAR
7th Hole - From tee 270 yards to green, APPROACH to 32 feet, 9 inches. Two-putt PAR
8th Hole - Par 5, 233 yards to green, second-shot APPROACH to 34 feet, 6 inches on fringe. Three-putt PAR
9th Hole - From tee 159 yards to green, APPROACH to 14 feet, 1 inch. Two-putt PAR
10th Hole - From fairway 88 yards to green, APPROACH to 15 feet, 3 inches. Two-putt PAR
11th Hole - From tee 299 yards to green, APPROACH to 18 feet, 3 inches. Two-putt PAR
12th Hole - From fairway 163 yards to green, APPROACH to 33 feet, 10 inch. Two-putt PAR
13th Hole - From fairway 180 yards to green, APPROACH to 34 feet, 8 inches. Two-putt PAR
14th Hole - From fairway 117 yards to green, APPROACH to Native Area, 26 feet, 3 inches from hole. Gets drop. BOGEY
15th Hole - From tee 135 yards to green, APPROACH to 21 feet, 9 inches.
16th Hole - From left rough, 200 yards to green, APPROACH to 62 feet, 7 inches. Two-putt PAR
17th Hole - From other fairway, 216 yards to green, APPROACH to 33 feet, 3 inchs. Two-putt PAR
18th Hole - From right fairway, 186 yards to green, APPROACH to 40 feet, 7 inches. Two-putt PAR
McIlroy gave himself nine approaches from a fairway (or tee on a par 3) within 200 yards of the green (average distance 143 yards) on Sunday. On these shots, his approach averaged 29 feet from the hole. On his 4 approaches inside 120 yards (3, 6, 10, 14 - not counting his third shot on 8, a 6-foot-7 inch putt), those shots averaged finishing 19 feet, 10 inches from the hole.
If we listened further to Tiger Woods on Rory at his best in 2014: "Now he's starting to make those 10- to 15-footers. That turns rounds around. You make two or three birdies in a row, you make a par putt here and there. Next thing you know a round you would normally shoot 1- or 2-over, and all of a sudden it's 69. And then you get the hot round and it's 66 or 65."
At LACC, only the second putt on #1, the second putt on #8, and the putt on nine gave Rory a look at a birdie from the inside the 15 feet arc Tiger Woods mentioned in 2014.
Could it be that what stands between Rory and his next major is the difference between "10-15 feet" Tiger saw in 2014 and the average of 29 feet that Rory gave himself on Sunday at the U.S. Open?
"The last real two chances I've had at majors I feel like have been pretty similar performances, like St Andrews last year and then here (at LACC)," said McIlroy. "Not doing a lot wrong, but I didn't make a birdie since the first hole today. Just trying to be a little more, I guess, efficient with my opportunities and my looks."
With the talent at the top of the professional game including McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler, Jon Ralm, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth, Cameron Smith, a resurgent Rickie Fowler, and maybe Wyndham Clark from here on to contend with, the chances for one player to dominate major championship golf are probably even slimmer than when Graeme McDowell was asked in 2014 if he thought Rory could dominate at the top.
"I don't know. Very tough to put your finger on when things -- when these young guys started coming out bigger and better and faster and stronger because that's what I see," McDowell said. "I see the Dustin Johnsons, and Rickie Fowlers and the Jordan Spieths coming out and ready to win, so there's more of them. It's great. The state of the game is incredibly healthy.
"It's exciting. Will we ever see that dominant player again? It's tough to say. We have the beginnings of one in Rory, but by his own high standards he stuttered for a year and a half or so. Did Tiger have a year and a half or two years early on in his career? Did he? I'm getting nods of the head.
"But again, every career has peaks and troughs. We're saying that perhaps dominance can happen, but the last 18 months for Rory, can be just a blip on the radar and perhaps he gets back to winning every time he tees it up. Who knows, it's exciting to watch, though."
McIlroy is expected to be a fan favorite when he tees it up at Royal Liverpool later this month, and the crowds will be rooting for him to cover that margin for the fifth time in his career.