The Open: Rory McIlroy’s Scottish Open victory adds to the buzz at Hoylake.
The Northern Irishman’s brave victory, his first in Scotland, raises expectations when he returns to the location where he won his lone Claret Jug to date in 2014.
Whether he can snap his nine-year drought in grand slam competitions this week is the focus of the Open, but it is far from the only intriguing topic offered by the year’s last men’s major.
Will the breakaway LIV tour have reason to rejoice at this most difficult period in men’s golf, with Cameron Smith trying to become the first player to successfully defend an Open title since Padraig Harrington in 2008?
Could another LIV recruit, US PGA champion Brooks Koepka, win his second major this year? Both Johnson and Smith pose significant threats on the Wirral links, a stretch of classic golf turf with a happy tendency for producing great winners.
McIlroy is the second Hoylake champion after Tiger Woods. His 2006 victory was his third and final Open championship, and it was one of the great ball striking performances, as he notably used his driver only once in 72 holes on dry fairways.
Other notable Hoylake victors include Harold Hilton, Walter Hagen, and Bobby Jones. In 1947, Northern Irishman Fred Daly laid the groundwork for McIlroy.
Is this the week the 34-year-old wins his second Open, fifth major, and puts an end to an agonizing drought?
In terms of expectation, we’ve been here before. Several times.
On the plus side, McIlroy is clearly in top form, having defeated a strong field in classic links weather conditions last week.
He also understands how to win back-to-back majors, having won the 2014 US PGA after winning the World Golf Championships the week before.
But that was during the most magnificent summer of his career, when he rocketed to the top of the rankings with straight wins at Hoylake, Firestone, and then Valhalla.
Talk of double digit major wins seemed very possible at the time. But the interim era has been filled with so many close calls, including last month’s US Open runner-up result to Wyndham Clark.
McIlroy, like last year at St Andrews, put on a show of ball striking in Los Angeles, hitting fairways and greens but not with lethal proximity to pins. He was unable to collect the birdies he need, allowing Smith and Clark to move clear.
It used to be enough to hold steady on the last day of majors. The remainder would crumble, leaving Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, and Sir Nick Faldo with the trophy since they had made the fewest mistakes.
Because of the strength in depth and the forgiving nature of modern club technology, it appears to take more these days. Players are conditioned to go for it and enjoy the occasion, as Smith did 12 months ago when he finished in 30 on the Old Course.
“The difference when you win those tournaments is that you’re not looking over your shoulder,” Harrington pointed out.
“If you believe you can win with your B game, your A game will rise to the occasion.” It’s the nature of golf that when you think you need your A game, your B game shows up.”
“I think with Nicklaus, because he believed that, he could hit all the great shots when he needed to hit them,” Harrington continued. Tiger was similar in this regard.