What a difference a year makes in sport. In early February 2020, Rory McIlroy was arguably in the best form of his career. He had just regained the world number one spot from Brooks Koepka, was considered the favourite for the, then upcoming, 2020 US Masters. Perhaps most importantly, McIlroy seemed to have got rid of the inconsistencies that have characterised his career. Everyone knew he could be brilliant, but they also knew he could go off the boil suddenly. An ultra-consistent McIlroy with his head in the right place was someone to be feared.
But as we know, the Masters was postponed. And by early spring, there was no golf at all on the calendar for a few months. In a nutshell, that was a disaster for McIlroy. No other golfer suffered as drastic a change in form as the Northern Irishman before and after golf’s hiatus. McIlroy’s results in the six events before the season was postponed in March: 5th, 5th, 5th, 3rd, 1st, 3rd. McIlroy’s results in the six tournaments after the season resumed: 32nd, 41st, 11th, 32nd, 47th, 33rd. You have to say that’s remarkable.
McIlroy will return this month
We should add that McIlroy did manage to finish tied for 5th in the rearranged Masters last November and 8th in the US Open, but those are very much outliers. He has now dropped back to world number seven, which is his worst ranking in almost two years. Like many others, McIlroy decided to take a break after the Masters, but he will return in this week’s Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, and then head to America for the Farmers’ Insurance Open at the end of January.
After a two month break, can McIlroy rekindle some of that fine form he had at this point last year? The problem with wondering whether McIlroy can rediscover his form is that it is not clear what the issues are in the first place. This is not a characteristic unique to McIlroy, but the word “puzzling” often seems to accompany the Northern Irishman when he has a downturn in fortunes.
We can point to some areas where his game has gone awry. He ranks a dismal 182nd in making greens in regulation on the PGA Tour, 72nd in Driving Accuracy. But it’s anyone’s guess as to why he keeps getting into trouble on the course. The fact he remains 5th in birdie percentage shows that he is still capable of brilliance, and he has the nous to get out of tight spots.
McIlroy second-favourite for 2021 US Masters
Despite the downturn in form, golf bookmakers still believe he is capable of turning things around. He is 9/1, second-favourite behind Dustin Johnson, with MansionBet golf betting odds for the 2021 Masters (8th-11th April_. That may seem strange given that McIlroy is six years now without a win in a Major. But bookmakers know that he can turn it on again at any stage – just like he did last year.
Indeed, that’s partly key to understanding McIlroy. He is entering his 14th year as a professional now, and there has always been a sense of anticipation as to whether he can finally become consistently excellent for a period of years, not months. That notion should really be put to bed by now. McIlroy is a streaky player – capable of excellence, but who can also go off the boil. He should be – and often is – considered in the running to win any Major he plays in. But we simply don’t know which Rory McIlroy will turn up.