Rory McIlroy must ignore expectations and play with freedom in majors

The fortunes of Rory McIlroy at major championships are becoming a familiar tale. A disappointing opening round or two usually leaves him chasing the cut, at which point his hopes of landing that elusive fifth major title all but vanish, leaving fans and pundits wondering what went wrong for the Northern Irishman.

August 2014 was the last time McIlroy triumphed in one of golf’s big four events, when he emerged triumphant at the PGA Championship at Valhalla in Louisville, Kentucky. Seven long years have passed since, and it’s fair to say no-one expected McIlroy to endure such a barren spell when he lifted the Wanamaker Trophy that summer. 

With every failed attempt to win another major, it seems that the pressure and expectation builds upon McIlroy even more for the next event, to the point where the Northern Irishman struggles to play his natural game in golf’s biggest events. Each time he gives it his all, but the pressure to perform always seems to get the better of him in the end, and it’s been a while since we’ve seen him in with a real shout of winning on Sunday at a major championship.

The best example of this stuttering effect was perhaps seen at The Open in 2019. Held at Royal Portrush in McIlroy’s native Northern Ireland, the eager spectators were keen to see their hero produce a memorable performance and win the tournament on home soil. Instead, McIlroy simply didn’t get going, missing the cut after an appalling two rounds, and he was left to scratch his head as to what went wrong.

It’s certainly not the case that McIlroy is incapable of winning big tournaments now. Just last month he triumphed at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, North Carolina — proof that his best game is still there when he plays with freedom and doesn’t get caught up in the significance of what he is trying to achieve. 

After that win, he went into the 2021 PGA Championship as one of the favourites in the betting exchange, but once again he simply couldn’t bring his best game to the majors, and after failing to card an under-par round across the tournament, McIlroy finished up tied for 49th. Much had been expected of him, especially given the fact that the event was held on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, where McIlroy reigned supreme in winning the same tournament in 2012, but it wasn’t to be.

It’s clear that McIlroy needs to find a way to play a more relaxed and natural game at the majors, and treat the biggest tournaments as though they were just any other PGA event. That is easier said than done, but when you see McIlroy utilising his extreme talents and experience in winning titles like the Wells Fargo, it’s clear that his under-performance in the majors must be psychological. 

He is one of golf’s most high-profile stars, and that means he will always be the player under most scrutiny, which can be hard for any player to deal with. What McIlroy can’t afford to do is lose hope. He’s got to keep believing that that fifth major title will come, and when it does, the celebrations will be long and merry. 

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