The tears that flowed beside the 18th green at Whistling Straits told of Rory McIlroy’s pent-up frustration, his relief and a reckoning. The toil of Europe’s Ryder Cup might have been pushed to the back of players’ minds, overshadowed by the pursuit of purses and ranking points. But the legacy of that lopsided defeat in September was not just the dominance of a record-breaking American team, but the reality of how a new generation has established themselves at the fore.
Although McIlroy led Europe out in the singles, after a hollowing week in which his quality and confidence deserted him, there can be no doubt that it is Jon Rahm who now hails as the reigning force, not only for this side of the Atlantic but across the world. And while Dustin Johnson might have become the first American to go 5-0 at a Ryder Cup since 1979, nor can there be much dispute that Collin Morikawa is the player primed to duel with Rahm at the top of leaderboards for the next decade. “I think players are getting better and better,” McIlroy told the BBC this week. “When I last won [a major] back in 2014 I’d never heard of Collin Morikawa, I’d never heard of Jon Rahm.”
Of course, it hardly needs saying that McIlroy, is not yesterday’s man. What he might define as a meagre year, winning the Wells Fargo Championship and the CJ Cup, stretches beyond most tour pros’ wildest imaginations. But at the same time, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that the longer his barren run at the majors extend – now standing at seven years – the more it feels as though time is slipping away; that the canyon between himself and his successors is inching just a fraction wider day-by-day. Phil Mickelson’s unprecedented victory at the PGA Championship last May was the best evidence that age in golf is far from a guillotine to ambition, but anomalies can’t prevent the sands of time from shifting.
And so this week, as the desert swing of the rebranded DP World Tour makes its second stop, McIlroy takes to the Dubai Desert Classic not under pressure, but with renewed impetus. Last week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, after overcoming gusting winds to make the cut, he surged into contention before flagging down the final stretch as Thomas Pieters held onto victory. It was something of a familiar tale but remained encouraging nonetheless, as was the 32-year-old’s recognition that he would stop seeking to emulate Bryson DeChambeau’s warp speed and instead hone in on accuracy.
For Morikawa, a lust for increased power has never needed to be the priority. He has the chance to overtake Rahm as the world No 1 if he can win this week, although four consecutive rounds in the seventies left him way back in the field in Abu Dhabi, with the American’s usually exquisite iron play totally out of sync. “My game just didn’t feel good,” he said. “I didn’t know where the ball was going. So I had to figure that out. [Monday] was much needed. I spent all afternoon working. It was probably the hardest and longest I’ve worked in a while, pre-tournament. But it’s good. Sometimes you need to have that kind of reset button and dive deep.”
It was in some ways, though, a little refreshing to see the world’s best players struggle. Over in California, Jon Rahm was overheard berating the gentle layout of La Quinta Country Club and deriding the tournament as a “putting contest” after Hudson Swafford won with a score of 23-under-par. Given the opportunity to rein back on his comment on Monday, the Spaniard instead doubled down. “The video’s pretty self-explanatory,” Rahm said. “I mean, we’re the PGA Tour, we’re the best golfers on the planet and we’re playing a course where missing the fairway means absolutely nothing.”
On the other side of the world, despite being on the wrong end of a more difficult test, Morikawa was inclined to agree. “It’s fun to shoot 34 under sometimes but if I had to do it every week, I’d get kind of sick of it,” he said. “You need a balance.”
There is something of an irony in there. The two talismans of golf heading into 2022 are wondering if there’s a danger things could become too easy. For McIlroy, it’s still another fresh start in a cycle of catching up to a time when it felt so.
All four rounds of the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic will be broadcast live on Sky Sports Golf.
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