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Open revival can prove to be the spark Rory McIlroy needs to get back into his stride

 

By Adam McKendry

Sporting history tends not to remember those who finished second. You'd do well to find someone who could tell you the two runners-up in 2003 when Ben Curtis won at Royal St George's, or who Todd Hamilton beat in a play-off at Royal Troon in 2004.

Rather, history favours the winner, particularly in those two cases given the relative obscurity of both Curtis and Hamilton.

It was Thomas Bjorn and Vijay Singh who finished second in 2003. And Ernie Els was the unlucky man in the 2004 play-off. But you knew that, right?

Fun times with Jason Day in London!! #nikegolfclub #itsharderthanitlooks

Posted by Rory McIlroy on Monday, July 24, 2017

This year it wasn't quite such an obscure name who walked away with the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale as Jordan Spieth finished head and shoulders above the rest for his third Major triumph.

Taking nothing away from Spieth, who was the Champion golfer in all aspects of the word, but there was another story making its way around the links last week.

Finally, we saw glimpses of the real Rory McIlroy.

He'd been long maligned by critics and fans alike for his patchy form, mostly due to his erratic putting, and his inability to add to his four Majors since 2014 have been a source of frustration for the McIlroy camp.

Injuries have hindered him all season, almost cruelly so. A rib injury sustained in the South African Open back in January continued to plague him, flaring up at The Players and forcing him out of the BMW PGA Championship in May.

That's not considered an excuse for a player who is World No.4 though. The expectation on him was high, that he would step straight back out onto the course and immediately go back to dominating fields across both Tours.

That didn't happen. Missed cuts at the Irish and Scottish Opens led to more frustrations, and the broken record of "I'm close, I'm just not getting results" began to sound more and more desperate each week.

Some wondered if we'd ever see the McIlroy that dominated at Congressional in 2011 or at Kiawah Island in 2012 again. Sure, he said he was close, but up to this point anything resembling a comeback wasn't clear.

But, finally, things began to click around the English links.

The Ulsterman's ball striking was cleaner than what we'd seen before. His short game came together when he needed it to. And, most importantly, putts began to find the bottom of the hole on a more regular and consistent basis.

But for what can only be described as an abysmal opening six holes, after which he found himself five-over par, McIlroy played nearly flawless golf.

As the grandstands emptied on Sunday evening, McIlroy stood in a tie for fourth at five-under alongside the ever improving Rafa Cabrera Bello, an unthinkable result given where he was on Thursday afternoon.

"It was a step in the right direction, I guess," was McIlroy's own personal reflection on his week at Birkdale.

"Looking at what happened the last few weeks, which is obviously a lot better, the game is in much better shape than it was heading into this week."

History will reflect on a win for Jordan Spieth, who became only the second man to win three Majors before the age of 24.

But behind it, a lot of people will remember the 2017 Open Championship as potentially a turning point for McIlroy.

It was proof that he could still compete with the best, something he knew, but something he needed physical evidence of, particularly when coming back from injury.

He'll take this week off before returning for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron next week, a course that favours the long ball, something McIlroy is a pioneer of.

Then comes the one he'll be relishing most: the US PGA Championship at Quail Hollow.

It's a familiar and welcoming venue for McIlroy - it's the site of his first PGA Tour victory, the 2010 Wells Fargo Championship, which he then won again in 2015.

Therefore, it's hard to see him not being confident in going there and thinking he can win, particularly off the back of a performance like last week.

He's been made joint-favourite to win at Quail Hollow - alongside Spieth - by most experts, such is the stock put into McIlroy's love for the North Carolina golf course.

The desire is there, he's talked about it enough times, now he just needs the game to come together at the right time to put himself back on the Major path.

"I'm not going to rush it, I'm not going to become impatient," the 28-year old said. "Hopefully my chance arrives at some point and I'm able to take it."

Another week like this, and that chance will arrive sooner rather than later.

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