McIlroy is looking to make grade with final test at Kiawah Island
The final major of the season is called “Glory’s Last Shot” and it is also, of course, McIlroy’s last shot at putting a gloss on his year by adding the title to his runaway US Open victory 14 months ago.
The world No 3, for whom a top two finish could see him dethrone Luke Donald at the top of the rankings again, started 2012 in brilliant form.
But come The Masters he was only 40th, he made an early exit from the US Open during a miserable run of four missed cuts in five starts and after a promising first day he fell away to 60th in The Open at Royal Lytham.
“There were a few goals I set myself at the start of the year, which I achieved – getting to No 1 in the world and winning a tournament early,” the 23-year-old Northern Irishman said yesterday at stormy Kiawah Island.
“The second-half has still been pretty good, but a little bit more of a struggle.
“If I had to give my season a grade to this point I’d probably give it a B, but there’s still a lot of golf left to play.”
After this week he goes into the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup play-offs, then comes the Ryder Cup in Chicago – a match now very much in his focus after European captain Jose Maria Olazabal brought the 10 players currently in position to qualify together for a meeting on Tuesday.
McIlroy’s approach to tournaments is changing somewhat. He no longer considers hour after hour on the driving range good for him.
“I need to get out there and play, see shots on the course,” he said.
“I think certain players feel like they need to be on the range for two or three hours a day and really work on drills.
“I feel I practise much better on the course when I can see different shots and work off different targets – and just play.
“I’ll still go and practise on the range and work on things that I have to, but once I feel comfortable that I’ve done that I want to go on the course and make sure it’s good out there.”
A fifth place finish at last week’s world championship was clearly a massive improvement on The Open and he likes what he sees at Pete Dye’s Ocean Course, scene not only of two World Cups, but also the 1991 “War on the Shore” Ryder Cup.
The last 16 majors have had 16 different winners, but McIlroy looks as likely as anyone to stop that sequence continuing.
Justin Rose, joint fifth with McIlroy on Sunday, would love to see it go to 17 with him winning his first major, of course, and it is more familiar surroundings for him than most of the field – he finished second with Paul Casey behind South Africans Trevor Immelman and Rory Sabbatini in the 2003 World Cup.
Casey is also in this week’s field, but now down at 93rd in the world after making just one halfway cut since he dislocated his shoulder snowboarding last Christmas.
It does not seem 15 years ago that a young Padraig Harrington, in only his second full season as a professional, teamed up with Paul McGinley at Kiawah Island and gave Ireland their first victory in golf’s World Cup since 1958.
But now Harrington has returned to the South Carolina course as a three-time major winner and as a 40-year-old almost certainly in need of something special if next month is to see him win a seventh Ryder Cup cap.
The Dubliner plays the first two rounds with two other former winners of the title, Phil Mickelson and American Ryder Cup captain Davis Love.
But while Mickelson is keen to hold on to what he has – the eighth and last automatic cup spot in this the last week of their race – Harrington has ground to make up. Lots of it.
Only another victory in the final major of the season would be sure to elevate Harrington into a position to qualify for Olazabal’s side.
His only other route into the team would be as a wild card at the end of the month.
He got one from Colin Montgomerie two years ago but Olazabal, with whom Harrington was involved in controversy over the repairing of a pitch mark at the 2003 Seve Trophy in Spain, has only two – one fewer than Montgomerie – to hand out.
Asked if he was able to put the Ryder Cup to one side this week and just focus on the major he said: “You know, I have to.
“I’m delighted I’m playing so well tee to green. The game’s been excellent, well under control – that’s what I’ve got to concentrate on.
“I can’t concentrate on something I haven’t control over. I’ve just got to keep playing my golf and be content that I’m playing well.”
After a fall down the world rankings that almost took him outside the top 100 – he stood third three years ago – Harrington produced an eighth-placed finish at the Masters and then came fourth at the US Open in June.
But it was still not enough to lift him back into the top 50, and missing out on last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational as a result led to him playing in a much smaller event in Reno instead.
A 19th-placed finish did precious little for his Ryder Cup chances, but maybe the memories of the 1997 World Cup are something he can feed off now.
“There are positives, no doubt about it,” Harrington said. “I like the style of golf course, that’s for sure.”
The last 16 majors have had 16 different winners. This season has seen Bubba Watson capture the Masters, Webb Simpson the US Open and then last month Ernie Els his second Open.
It could easily become 17 – Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, and Tiger Woods are not on the list and nor, of course, is Adam Scott after he threw things away with four closing bogeys at Royal Lytham.
Watson is also celebrating something off the course this week – his adoption of a baby boy was finalised. While Simpson has become a father again since he triumphed in San Francisco, missing the Open while he waited for his wife Dowd to give birth.