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Pressure off: Rory McIlroy had his lowest round for two years at Scottsdale yesterday

Pressure off: Rory McIlroy had his lowest round for two years at Scottsdale yesterday

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Pressure off: Rory McIlroy had his lowest round for two years at Scottsdale yesterday

As leader Jordan Spieth teed off on the first hole at TPC Scottsdale yesterday, Rory McIlroy was halfway down the 18th fairway and about to make the turn.

That was the situation unfolding in Scottsdale, McIlroy relegated to one of the groups teeing off at the 10th as part of a two-tee start in the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, in the bottom half of the draw, such had been his average play earlier in the week.

Meanwhile, Spieth was where the Holywood man would have wanted to be. Much maligned the last few years - and rightly so for some erratic play that saw him tumble precipitously down the world rankings - former World No.1 Spieth was in the last trio, challenging at the tail end of a tournament once again.

And there, two groups behind him playing his 'back nine' of the day, was McIlroy.

He was one of the main draws for the event in the build-up, making the first appearance of his career at the Arizona tournament, and he even ramped up the excitement a notch by going on a self-instigated rant on the joint USGA/R&A decision to introduce rule changes that limits how far players can hit the ball.

On Thursday and Friday, he was paired with Xander Schauffele and Daniel Berger in one of the tournament's marquee groups. By Sunday, he was an afterthought.

Starting the day six-under-par, he was 12 shots behind Spieth, and in the company of Brendan Steele and Mark Hubbard - still good golfers in their own right but not quite the same draw as Schauffele and Hubbard.

So, of course, with all that considered, McIlroy went out and shot a seven-under 64 yesterday.

It was his lowest final round at a tournament since the 2019 RBC Canadian Open - which, he won - and catapulted him into the top-10 when he holed his final par putt on the ninth.

From an afterthought, all of a sudden he was on track to record another superb finish in what is an excellent run that has yet to yield a trophy.

Besides two bogeys at the fifth and 11th holes - the latter coming after he was a bit too aggressive off the tee, which you can't complain about given it is his modus operandi - it was target golf for the World No.6, and he was in his element.

He birdied nine of 13 holes from the 14th onwards. According to the PGA Tour website, five of those birdie putts were made from within seven feet, while his longest was just 15ft 9ins. The approach play was outstanding, the putting only needed to be so-so for the scoring to follow.

Avid McIlroy followers will ask where that kind of a round on a Sunday has been for the last year-and-a-half. It certainly wouldn't have been amiss in the final round at the Abu Dhabi Championship two weeks ago when he couldn't get out of first gear, shot a 72 and watched Tyrrell Hatton run away with the victory with a final round 66.

Or at last year's US Open when he fell apart on Sunday with a 75 as Bryson DeChambeau flourished by shooting a 66. Last year's Arnold Palmer Invitational - when he shot a 76 in the final round as Hatton won again with a 74 - springs to mind, too.

To get back to his best - and yesterday was somewhere very close to it - and start closing out events on the final day, McIlroy knows where to improve.

Last year, he ranked 122nd in strokes gained: putting on the PGA Tour. Since 2016, he has only ranked inside the top-100 in that stat twice, and in Phoenix it was a problem in his first three rounds. Until that is sorted, he will struggle to break that glass ceiling and finally pick up career win no.29.

For golf is a game that has scant consolation for those who do not finish on top. While the financial gains are still substantial, there are no medals for second. You'll rarely forget the winner of a tournament, but second place can easily escape the mind.

For McIlroy, his all-or-nothing playing style mirrors his ambition - it's winning or nothing, and while his form has been outstanding by any golfer's yardstick, it's not good enough for the man himself.

He's been close on so many occasions, and his current run has seen him rack up four top-eight finishes in his last seven events. If you want to extend that a bit further, he has nine top-11 finishes in his 19 events since the start of 2020.

Amazingly, he hasn't missed a cut since The Open at Royal Portrush two years ago, the longest active streak in golf.

The only thing missing is that trophy in his hands.

He'll have hurt watching Dustin Johnson win again in Saudi Arabia. The unflappable American - who has now solidified his position as the sport's first undisputed World No.1 since Tiger Woods in his heyday - has won four times since June and hasn't finished outside the top-11 in a tournament since July.

But yesterday at TPC Scottsdale was a good reminder that Rory can still get it done on a Sunday. Proving he can do it when the pressure's off was the first step, the next is doing it when a trophy is on the line.

Belfast Telegraph


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