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Comment: Which Rory McIlroy will we see at Royal Portrush in the Open Championship?

 

Eyes on prize: Rory McIlroy at the US Open last month
Eyes on prize: Rory McIlroy at the US Open last month
Rory McIlroy's image mocked up alongside fellow NI Major champs Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Fred Daly
McIlroy’s caddy Harry Diamond
The prodigy eyes up a putt

Multiple mirrored reflections will cast their gaze upon Rory McIlroy when he returns to familiar haunts next week, his face given back to him too many times to keep count - but which one will most accurately represent his real likeness?

First, as he passes through his Holywood home and his local course, the ever-present face of the two-year-old who first bombed a 40-yard drive; thence to Portrush, where, upon the lifeboat station building, a budding northern Banksy has deftly drafted the image of a 12-year-old in full flight.

From here one can see the Fairhead cliffs in the distance, whereupon his image has been carved Mount Rushmore-like, and then the club itself, with its stunning representation of the flare-trousered, mop-headed teenager who scorched around the Dunluce Links with a 61 as a 16-year-old.

A face for every phase. But there is another view; some say the most revealing, but not always. For if he looks in a mirror at his own reflection in 2019, can McIlroy find the truest representation there? Or is his best self-rendered in one of the many other images staring back at him?

This month may reveal all, and it would seem fitting if he did so on the familiar home soil where, so determinedly, he first announced himself as the nascent whirlwind who would so thrill the sporting world far beyond these sandy shores.

And yet, for all the certainty that has attached itself to him throughout his remarkable career, doubts have followed, if only because in sport that is what happens when rising expectations invite excessive demands.

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His own expectations are more exacting than any number of critics, notwithstanding the seemingly sanguine public image of the boy who is now a mature man, happily in love and so eager to project a perspective on his self-professed pursuit which involves "hitting a little ball around a field sometimes".

Another year without completing a career Grand Slam doesn't nag him as much as the aching gap that exists since he won his last Slam event.

Since winning the second of two successive Majors in 2014 (the US PGA at Valhalla following a Hoylake Open success), 16 contemporaries have claimed Slam events; some of them, like Jordan Spieth (3) and Brooks Koepka (4), on multiple occasions.

Since Valhalla, valleys have been as common as peaks - McIlroy is arguably as potent a force now, as then, except his potential dominance has been challenged by so many others and his own frailties have, on crucial occasions, undermined him.

How inter-linked these two factors are might remain a mystery.

His career now is predicated upon being myopically primed for Major challenges - hence the scheduling fuss over his Lahinch non-appearance - but constant change in approach has not altered the blank canvas since 2014.

From swing changes to mind moves, subtle shifts in putting techniques to caddy switches, McIlroy's recent career has been a study in a ceaseless quest to forge a new identity, or reinvigorate an old one.

Instinct, and especially that of a player who has always thrived on this concept, might lead one to wonder whether he has been searching in all the wrong places.

Persistently prompted by those on the outside to turn anew to a different approach, McIlroy has, at times, seemed stubbornly resistant to modifying his way.

From loyalty to one caddy before sacrificing that professional relationship in order to maintain a personal friendship, to equipment changes, a wildly inconsistent nature has grabbed hold and yet he remains a leading light.

Take away Augusta's dispiriting denouement, a tournament within which all the complexities of McIlroy's Slam quest had been unveiled, and the missed cut at Memorial, and his standards remain as exalted as ever.

Now third in the world, every other event he played this season featured him in the top-10.

Aside from that, a second and two victories, both of which were familiarly dominant successes in which he supremely commanded his self and the course, were a reminder, if needed, of his gifts.

Not bad for a player who, some might charge, had somehow lost his way; the 20-something years banished to history; a game now in spiralling freefall.

The go-to stats of the modern nerd - strokes gained - are favourable to him like no other, but a deeper dig unveils the scars that are familiar to Rory watchers in recent Slam tilts.

Although leading in strokes gained off the tee and second in driving, his accuracy leaves him marooned in a woeful 134th.

The numbers for approach shots and putting are equally modest.

From 50-125 yards, Rory is 163rd on tour, hitting to an approximate distance of 21 feet; in comparison, Koepka lies seventh (16 feet).

Only one player has made more than the 14 putts from 21 feet achieved by McIlroy, but, then again, he has only done so one in four times. It is easy to see which player is making life easier for himself. An over-reliance on metrics is always unwise but there is also an undoubted feel to the numbers, one revealing that there is a 'streaky' sense to him now; on fire, he is unstoppable, fanning flames, vulnerable.

Also revealed here, but through his words, is a sense that he still plays his best when utterly unfettered, viz the two tournament wins or on the more than occasional weekend when, out of contention, he has dazzled.

That freedom is often absent on the opening two tournament days, succumbing him to the adage of being quite unable to win an event before the cut is made, but quite possibly capable of losing it.

Of the changes he has made - most notably employing a mind coach, Dr Clayton Skaggs - one has been to tinker with his swing, attempting to eliminate his tendency to over-compensate when shaping shots from either right-to-left or left-to-right.

He has altered his posture to increase his hip tilt but also to try to ameliorate his backswing; the evidence suggests it remains a work-in-progress.

Criticised for not changing his caddy, JP Fitzgerald, and then criticised for changing him, he remains committed to Harry Diamond staying on his bag.

And discussing the issue last week, he may have stumbled upon the most obvious truth of it all. "Caddies don't hit shots."

Neither do golf pundits nor scribes; then again, if they can be accused of over-thinking what McIlroy needs to do to end his Major drought, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility to believe that the player might be doing so too.

The boy can play; the man needs to allow him to do so.

If current form is a guide, history, instead of weighing him down, might inspire him in this next fortnight.

Six of the last nine Open winners have competed at this week's Scottish Open and this was the path McIlroy trod in 2014 when clinching the Claret Jug on Merseyside.

That success unveiled a familiar theme of his Major wins, the fast start, when he opened with a 66.

Like the 65 posted in the opening round of the 2011 US Open en route to a rout; the 67 in the PGA Championship a year later; a 66 in the 2014 Open; the same score in that year's PGA.

Which McIlroy will we see next week? More importantly, which one will he see?

A confident reflection when he looks in the mirror can see him win; the bookies cast him as favourite, underlining his form and status.

If not, like another of the many images surrounding him, the one drafted on the sand of Downhill Strand, another Major chance opportunity might be washed away.

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