18 May 2021 | Professional golf |

The PGA: McIlroy keeps searching

by Contributor

Rory McIlroy Kiawah image
Rory McIlroy found form at Quail Hollow, but will he still have it at the PGA? Photo: Getty

By Richard Allen

When Rory McIlroy won the US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course in 2012 by a mind-boggling (and record) eight shots – having won the previous year’s US Open at Congressional by the same margin – the golfing world lay at the feet of the precocious 23-year-old from County Down in Northern Ireland.

Fast-forward nine years, and much has changed.

McIlroy has not won a major since 2014 and missed the cut at the first major of 2021, the Masters.

His recent win at Quail Hollow on the US Tour gave rise to optimism that his recent troubles may have passed, but only this week will the questions be answered fully.

McIlroy, who once spent 100 weeks as world number one, had crashed down the world rankings to No. 15 prior to Quail Hollow. Currently, he is No. 7. Such is the fickle world of golf; one day you are shooting the lights out, the next you can’t hit the side of a barn.

“Golf is a weird sport,” world number one Dustin Johnson once said. “Some days you got it. Some days you don't.”

The Irishman will hope to rediscover his magic before the year’s second major golf championship, the US PGA, takes place this week at the scene of his 2012 triumph – among the dunes and alligator-infested marshland of Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course in South Carolina.

Truth be told, the Ocean Course is hardly the ideal place to find an errant swing. Located on the eastern end of the island, 40 kilometres southwest of Charleston, it boasts the most seaside holes of any course in the Northern Hemisphere. Ten holes hug the Atlantic Ocean and the other eight holes run parallel.

Although the course was originally planned in the late 1980s to sit behind the sand dunes, Alice Dye, wife of the course’s designer Pete Dye, suggested raising the entire course to give players unobstructed views of the ocean from each hole. Thousands of tonnes of sand were moved. The catch was that the higher fairways and greens meant greater exposure to the wind.

The Ocean Course is probably more in keeping with the wild links land of Scotland or Ireland than it is to southern USA, although the elegant shingled clubhouse is straight out of Cape Cod.

“When I saw this land I walked up and down the beachline and my imagination got carried away,” Dye recalled. “I thought I’d give up my life to build this golf course. You could have a great golf hole and it could be in Missouri or Indiana, but if you have the Atlantic Ocean and the next thing out of bounds is Spain, that’s pretty good.”

Golf Digest magazine once labelled the Ocean Course America’s toughest. “If the wind comes up it’s as good a test as you could ever have,” said 1978 PGA champion John Mahaffey.

Despite being only 30 years old, the Ocean Course has witnessed plenty of golfing drama. Apart from McIlroy’s runaway victory in 2012, the course hosted the famous Ryder Cup match in 1991, which the press dubbed ‘The War on the Shore’. Three days of competition between the best professionals in the USA and Europe came down to a two-metre par-saving putt on the last day for Germany’s Bernhard Langer to beat Hale Irwin and retain the cup for Europe.

His putt missed to the right, their match was halved, and the USA won the cup 14½ – 13½.

“I was watching Langer putt and all I could think of was that I was glad it wasn’t me,” said American player Corey Pavin. England’s Nick Faldo described the tournament as “a brutal week”.

So, what can we expect at this week's PGA?

What is apparent after Japanese player Hideki Matsuyama’s stunning victory at the US Masters last month is that the golfing sands of influence are shifting. The Americans no longer dominate golf’s major championships. Notably, the top eight placegetters at the US Masters comprised a Japanese (Matsuyama), three Americans (Will Zalatoris, Xander Schauffele and Jordan Spieth), an Australian (Marc Leishman), a Spaniard (Jon Rahm), an Englishman (Justin Rose) and a Canadian (Corey Connors).

Desperate to atone for his disappointing efforts at Augusta will be world number one Dustin Johnson, who missed the cut, and Players Championship winner and world number two Justin Thomas, who tied for 21st. Last year’s PGA winner Collin Morikawa will be keen for another good showing, while Schauffele – who was running Matsuyama hard in the final round at Augusta until he hit his tee shot into the water on 16 and had a disastrous triple-bogey six – will be aiming to put that trauma behind him.

There are plenty of 72s scored at Augusta, but not many are made up of two bogeys, a double bogey, a triple bogey and seven birdies. But that’s the scorecard Schauffele signed for in the last round, leaving him seven under par, tied for third. Shauffele’s time will likely come; the 2021 US Masters was his eighth top-10 finish in 15 major starts. However, his errant shot on 16 probably cost him US$575,000 – the difference between second and tied for third.

The alligators of the Ocean Course will be quietly waiting for more errant shots next weekend.

First published in the Financial Review

Richard Allen is a journalist, author and Golf Australia board member

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