Tell me if this sounds familiar: Heading into the final round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Sunday, Rory McIlroy stood in second place, just three shots off the lead. He proceeded to shoot 72, which was the worst score of any player in the top 20 (of a 33-man field). Instead of winning, he slipped down the leader board, finishing in a disappointing tie for fourth.
Blur the specifics a little, and you could be talking about any number of recent events. The one that stands out, of course, is the 2018 Masters, when he shot a painful Sunday 74 in the final group to cede the tournament to Patrick Reed. But the list goes on: the Tour Championship, in which he stumbled in Tiger Woods’ shadow, again in the final group, to post a dismal 74; the BMW PGA Championship, where he shot an unimpressive 70 in the final group to finish second despite starting the day as co-leader; the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, playing (repeat after me) in the final group, and once more blundering his way around the course to fall to sixth and hand Justin Thomas a relatively stress-free victory.
Those are the most egregious examples, but they aren’t the only ones—there are plenty of other tournaments, from the Open Championship to the Dubai Desert Classic to the Dell Technologies Championship, where a good-to-great performance would have put him near victory, and where he could only muster the pedestrian. One of his best Sundays of the year came at the BMW Championship in September … unfortunately, that was because rain canceled play for the day. When the final round resumed on Monday, he stumbled in the last group, failing to erase a slim one-shot deficit as victory eluded him again. By my count, Rory has played in seven final pairings (or threesomes) in the past year, and he hasn’t captured even one of those titles.
And those are just the lowlights from 2018—a single year of golf in which Rory McIlroy failed, over and over again, to summon any of the old Sunday electricity that has netted him four majors and deserving comparisons to the historical greats. There was one exception, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last March, when he shot a brilliant Sunday 64 for his lone win of the year.
In general, his performances last year were shocking in their deficiency. The most you could say about him was that he made himself into an ideal final-round enemy, particularly for the extended list of Americans—Woods, Reed, Thomas, Schauffele, Bradley—who faced the former World No. 1 and came out on top.
It’s no secret that Rory McIlroy is a media darling. Along with his robust game, he’s intelligent, more open than most and funny. He’s my favorite professional golfer, although I’m not sure if that’s the sort of thing I’m supposed to admit. Everything is more exciting when Rory’s involved, and win or lose, he’s one of the more interesting personalities in the sport. Maybe that’s why his recent struggles seem to have been spun by secret consensus into a broader, kinder narrative about mundane flaws within his game that are simply one revelation away from resolving, rather than the crueler but perhaps truer narrative: That he’s put himself in contention plenty of times, just like in the glory days of 2014, but that he no longer possesses the steel to close. It’s not the skill that has faltered, perhaps, but the nerve.
Nobody wants to call Rory McIlroy a choker, and when you consider what he’s accomplished in his career, and how he’s accomplished it, the idea seems ridiculous on its face. How can the man who faced down Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler at Valhalla, who intimidated and bludgeoned them into submission, be a choker? How can the man who closed with an incredible flourish on Saturday at Hoylake to crush the field be a choker? How can the man who ruined Sergio Garcia psychologically within two holes at the ’14 Bridgestone Invitational be a choker? Those examples alone are enough to cement someone’s bona fides for a career, and that’s not even counting the majors he dominated, or his stellar Ryder Cup play.
But it may be time to consider that even if Rory McIlroy isn’t a choker—far from it, in the big picture—he has perhaps entered a choke-y stage of his career. The question then becomes why? Has he simply lost his nerve over time? Is there some flaw in his game that emerges under pressure? Are certain people allotted a finite amount of that cliched quality we call “killer instinct,” and when it runs out it’s gone for good? Is he just an inconstant person who cycles through phases, in which case we can expect him to come out the other side any moment now?
Or, since we live in the age of the conspiracy theory, is he cursed by his ex-fiancée, Caroline Wozniacki, who—long considered a choker herself—won the Australian Open in January 2018 to break a career-long grand slam drought at roughly the exact moment that Rory’s really ugly stretch began?
Those explanations range from “feasible” to “idiotic,” and none of them likely captures exactly what’s happening in Rory’s head. Before Sunday’s round in Hawaii, he was asked what he learned from his troubles last year, and he offered this:
“[I was] just pushing a little too much too early and trying to really force myself to hitting shots or hitting it into positions where I don’t really need to and just being patient … I just forced the issue a little bit too much, yeah.”
Of course, he then teed it up Sunday and played out the same frustrating script. It seems as though Rory himself might not know what’s dogging him, so how could anyone else? The one element in his favor is time—though it seems like he’s been around forever, he’s still only 29 years old, and he will undoubtedly leave this phase behind. But years from now, when we look back on the career of Rory McIlroy and examine the various incarnations of a dynamic star, the current stage—the stage of the faltering nerve—will not be anyone’s favorite.