All of which is frustrating enough. But even worse for the Northern Irishman will surely be the nagging thought that mediocre final rounds low-lighted by play far removed from his best stuff are becoming something of a bad habit. Indeed, McIlroy’s first start since the Masters in November was a typical example of that undesirable genre. His even-par 72 was never likely to be enough to preserve the narrow one-shot advantage he held at the start of the day.
Not for the first time in the last 18 months or so, the man many believe to be the most talented of golf’s elite players performed with something less than distinction on Sunday afternoon. It’s happened a handful of times on the PGA Tour, notably at the Genesis Invitational last February (tied for the lead entering the final round only to shoot a closing 73 to finish T-5) and the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March (two off the lead to start the day before a 76 left him T-5).
“On Day 1 he was ‘there,’ ” said former Scottish Open champion, Wayne “Radar” Reilly, who walked all 72 holes in Abu Dhabi with McIlroy in his on-course commentary role for Sky Sports. “On Day 2 he wasn’t ‘there.’ On Day 3 he was ‘there.’ And on Day 4 he wasn’t ‘there.’ The consistency just isn’t in him right now. Still, he’ll take away a top-three finish from this, which is never bad. You want to win them all, but you can’t. Not even Tiger Woods did that.”
All of which is true. But the bigger issue for McIlroy is that, at least for the moment, he isn’t winning anything. Were he to replace the spikes on the soles of his shoes with wheels, it is way to imagine them spinning endlessly—and going nowhere.
“This wasn’t the day I was hoping for,” McIlroy said. “It started well with two birdies in the first three. Then I hit a few putts that were affected more by the wind than they had over the previous days. That was true of the three-putts I had on the fourth green. Then the couple of bogeys I made around the turn didn’t help.”
That much was obvious. McIlroy’s body language over the closing holes was one of understandable resignation, his chance of a maiden victory in his 11th try in Abu Dhabi is out-matched only by his inability (so far) to win the Masters. It was noticeable too that his driving—such a potent weapon when going well—was significantly improved when it was evident he wasn’t going to win. Clearly, taking full advantage of his greatest asset when under pressure was, is and has been an issue.
“I don’t feel like I played great this week,” said McIlroy, who’ll compete for the first time in 2021 on the PGA Tour at this upcoming Farmers Insurance Open. “I was sort of managing my game a little bit. It was nice to get a competitive week under my belt though. I know where my game is. And I know that I have to do to keep on improving. For the most part, my short game and my putting was pretty good. I scrambled well. And I hit some pretty good approach shots, especially over the last few holes in the third round. I got the driver going in parts of each round, even over the last few holes today. But it was in-and-out. I had a few holes where it was really good, then a few where it got away from me. I need a little more consistency there. I need to replicate the good ones hole after hole, then day after day. When I do, I’ll put four rounds together.”
Indeed. But for that at least, the wait continues.