Let’s get this out of the way up front: We’re nitpicking here. Guilty as charged.
But when Rory McIlroy, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, is at or near the top of a leaderboard in the final round of a golf tournament, there are expectations. And those expectations are that he should win the tournament.
Tiger Woods has lived in that world for more than two decades, where no win equates to a bad week.
McIlroy entered the final round of last week’s Charles Schwab Challenge three shots out of the lead held by Xander Schauffele at Colonial Country Club.
And on Sunday, while most of the players around him either made a charge up the leaderboard or at least kept within touch of the lead, McIlroy went backward, shooting an eye-opening 6-over-par 41 on the front nine and finishing with a 74 that left him in a tie for 32nd.
Given his pedigree, it seems a little unfair to say, but final rounds in contention have become a little bit of a thing for McIlroy, who’ll tee it up again in Thursday’s opening round of the RBC Heritage in Hilton Head, S.C.
Put simply, there have been times in the past two years when McIlroy, for all of his brilliance, has curiously not been at his best on Sundays.
This past Sunday was Exhibit A.
At the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, McIlroy shot 76 on Sunday and slipped to a tie for fifth. At the Genesis Invitational in February at Riviera, McIlroy closed with a final-round 73 to finish tied for fifth after shooting three rounds in the 60s entering the final round.
His consistency has been remarkable. Before last week, McIlroy had six top-five finishes in six events played in 2020, including one win. In the 19 tournaments he played in 2019, he had three wins and 14 top-10s, including eight top-fives.
So, is it fair to criticize him for not winning more given how often he’s put himself in position? Or should he be lauded for putting him in position to win so often?
This is the McIlroy conundrum.
“I wouldn’t say that Sundays this year have been disappointing,’’ McIlroy said Wednesday in advance of the RBC Heritage. “Maybe Bay Hill I would say was disappointing, and obviously last week [at Colonial], but that was just more annoying. I played [like] crap. That was really it. I got into a rut.
“Look, it’s OK. I played OK last week. It was a good gauge to see where I was at and what I needed to practice and what I needed to do going into the next few weeks. Obviously [it was] disappointing not to shoot a good one on Sunday, but it was fine. I learned quite a bit from it, and hopefully those lessons I can put into practice this week.’’
Though his win percentage is not close to what Woods’ was in his prime, because McIlroy has been so good, he’s similarly become a victim of his own success.
“If Tiger Woods doesn’t win, we’re mad because he would win one out of every three times,’’ Davis Love III said Wednesday. “But you look at Rory McIlroy, he’s an unbelievable player. You’ve got to look at the positive — the guy’s always got a chance to win. There’s a hundred guys in this field that would like to have his fourth-place finishes.
“That’s the way you’ve got to look at it. If you’re not running at the top — if you’re not [NASCAR driver] Kyle Busch out front — you can’t get wrecked on the last lap. [McIlroy’s] always running up front and every once in a while, you have a wreck.’’
So, maybe we are nitpicking. But we’re doing it because McIlroy is so good that we expect him to win almost every time he tees it up. And that, in its own way, is compliment.
“If you’re not up there all the time, you can’t finish second,’’ Love said. “That’s the way I look at Rory — he’s always in the game. He always looks like he’s one round away from winning. He’s world No. 1 because he finishes first and second and third and fourth and fifth a lot.’’
Even when we expect him to win every week.