Rory McIlroy will head to the Open Championship on the back of consecutive missed cuts. In fact, only once in four starts dating back to the first week in June has McIlroy made the weekend, and that was by the skin of his teeth at the Travelers Championship.
Only three events give us the evidence we need to rate expectations for this week, and he missed the cut in each of them: the 2010 Masters, where he arrived having played poorly all spring; the 2012 US Open, where three missed cuts in four became four missed cuts in five; and the 2013 Open Championship, high summer in a year of transition and for Rory, another washout.
It’s easy to understand why McIlroy is friendless in the betting, considered no more likely an Open champion than Jon Rahm, a player who has yet to experience major contention; no more likely an Open champion than Rickie Fowler, a player who knows what it’s like to contend, but not yet to win.
Greats in any sport boast myriad advantages over those in pursuit of greatness. For the spectator, the most powerful, the most demonstrable, is technical.
Roger Federer’s backhand, for example, flows with the grace of a prima ballerina. The first incarnation of Tiger Woods’ swing prompted a revolution in his sport. Ayrton Senna’s ability to make his car float across water, let alone tarmac, was of the gods.
Along with his achievements – four major championships at 25, for example – it’s McIlroy’s swing which sets him apart even from, say, Dustin Johnson, and drew early comparisons with a young Tiger. It is straightforward beauty, a masterpiece on repeat.
My love affair with McIlroy’s swing began later than most. Not in 2007, when a bright, puppy-fatted McIlroy arrived on TV at the Open Championship. Not in 2008, when, now professional, McIlroy climbed from outside the world’s top 200 to inside its top 50. Not even in 2009, the year of his first professional title at the Dubai Desert Classic.
No, it took until 2010 and the 69th hole of the Quail Hollow Championship for me to really get McIlroy.
There is a wonderful piece of camerawork as he steps over the ball at the par-five 15th. Here, through the trees, playing voyeur as McIlroy hoists a five-iron into the air with such force, before coaxing it gently down like a master falconer welcoming his bird back to earth, jaws dropping all around.
In the stillness of North Carolina, there was no need to worry about what the ground or the sky might do to his ball: it was totally at McIlroy’s behest as he strode directly to what amounted to a global breakthrough. It was, in fact, magic, and remains the blueprint for McIlroy at his best: unshackled and fearless, totally convinced by the outcome of his actions, the club an extension of his own body.
You could see that very moment repeated at Congressional the following summer, at Kiawah Island in 2012, at Hoylake and even at Valhalla in 2014, the one time McIlroy has drawn out his major killing spree until the final hole.
These four majors have followed, and now stand alone as the primary measurement of McIlroy as a modern great, but the birth of McIlroy as a player whose best is unbeatable came at Quail Hollow with one mesmerising swipe of a five-iron.
Like great sportspeople, great commentators also boast myriad advantages over mediocre ones. Some of these cannot really be taught: accent, tone, the anatomy of the noise itself are unearthed by genetics, by geography.
Perhaps the most important skill, however, is learnable: to choose the right words and to deliver them naturally; to make the chosen appear unchosen. The ability to make something appear as though it is not is, in its own way, magic - just like the magic of a McIlroy five-iron.
Jim Nantz, for all his qualities as a golf announcer of several decades, dozens of majors, just about every moment you can recall watching, never quite manages it. Nowadays through choice and in keeping with his caricature, Nantz has his lines written well in advance and makes no convincing attempt to colour them as off-the-cuff.
“Welcome to the big time”, his choice to call home McIlroy at Quail Hollow, was at least appropriate, if a little dismissive to the European Tour on which the Northern Irishman had already won almost 18 months earlier.
Yet it was still lacking in that reactive passion found in the great commentary lines, including one of the best, from Richard Hoiles, who called home Denman’s defeat of Kauto Star in the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
While these two great horses hailed from the same stable and, more than once, contested the same races, they were very different: one an equine athlete, as speedy and nimble as he was strong; the other a bull with one gear, high enough to take others to places they did not wish to go.
On this occasion it was Denman’s high gear which overcame the more enchanting, all-round qualities of his friend and rival. He was, as Hoiles put it, “relentless, remorseless” and broke the heart of Kauto Star that day, in a seismic event underscored by Hoiles’ note-perfect commentary.
McIlroy has the ability to break hearts like Denman did, and to appear on another level like Kauto Star did. I wonder, then, what line might welcome his fifth major. Will he be “relentless, remorseless,” like in the first two. Will he be simply the best, like the third and fourth?
There is really no such thing as actual inevitability, and this is certainly true of sport. Even the most predictable of outcomes could never have come to pass, at the loss of a point here, the misfiring of a shot there.
The closest thing sport has ever had to inevitable is Tiger Woods. Fourteen times, from first to 14th, he took a lead into Sunday of a major championship and won. Numbers 11, 12, 13 and 14 are not the most impressive: it’s numbers one, two, three and four, the establishing of a sequence we’ll likely never see repeated.
McIlroy failed at the first attempt. So too did Jordan Spieth, in a manner of speaking, although it was his fourth major championship lead which went so spectacularly wrong.
Dustin Johnson also failed. In fact, like McIlroy, he could not break 80 in the final round of his first opportunity to become a major champion. Where Johnson and McIlroy are different is that Johnson took six years after his own meltdown to get it right. McIlroy took little more than six weeks to do what felt inevitable.
And it’s on this front that McIlroy is the closest thing we have seen to Woods, two decades on from Tiger’s emergence, those moments which changed golf, moments which, without doubt, laid the foundations upon which McIlroy has built the first part of his own career.
When Woods won the last of his 14 majors, he did so thanks to a putt on the final hole which so very nearly missed, just as that chip-in at Augusta two years earlier had so very nearly come to rest on the edge of the cup. That both dropped felt inevitable, if not to you or I then at least to Rocco Mediate and Chris DiMarco.
McIlroy does not have quite that same gift: it will never feel inevitable that he’s able to make a putt he has to make; in fact, it will never feel inevitable that he’s even able to make the next cut.
But what does feel inevitable is that McIlroy will win more majors, and that when he does, the wait – for him, and for us – will have been worthwhile.
Chances are that McIlroy will not win the Open Championship, but I’m brought back to that five-iron at Quail Hollow.
The Five-Iron came about not only because McIlroy is gifted beyond the boundaries of the word, but because he was comfortable.
When McIlroy is comfortable, he can appear invincible.
He will not be totally comfortable at Royal Birkdale, although this isn’t to say he cannot win regardless. Links golf in its purest form does not suit McIlroy, who once said "I'm not a fan of golf tournaments [where] the outcome is predicted so much by the weather."
By his own admission, McIlroy likes trees, he likes the stillness that gives him absolute control over where his ball finishes. For an artist, you might say he lacks a certain creativity, and the absence of it can make him vulnerable, which makes him uncomfortable.
He will, however, be comfortable at Quail Hollow, where next month’s PGA Championship is being held. Scene of the five-iron, scene of two victories by a combined 11 shots.
It is the one major McIlroy has won twice; the one which appears best suited to his game, even if it is nomadic, moving from course to course. This also comes back to comfort, I imagine: there is less pressure to win the PGA, both from the course and from those watching. McIlroy is free to swing that swing.
Perhaps, the inevitability of Rory McIlroy’s fifth major championship is closer than his golf in Ireland and Scotland might suggest.