Depending on your definition of success, it could be argued that nobody has been better at the last eight major championships than Rory McIlroy. The Northern Irishman placed T6 at 2023 Open Championship, which is actually among the bottom half of his finishes at majors over the last two years.
You read that correctly. Losing to five golfers at Royal Liverpool was one of his four worst finishes in a major from 2022-23.
Overall, the numbers are mind-bending. Excluding the 2023 Masters where he missed the cut, McIlroy has faced 1,019 competitors at the other seven majors across the last two years and placed higher than 993 of them (97.4%). To play seven majors with only 26 total golfers (3.7 per tournament) keeping you from winning even one trophy is astounding.
It goes deeper than that, though. Even if you throw in the lousy Masters he played this April, McIlroy still leads all players in major scoring over the last two years. A total of 36 golfers have played in each of the last eight majors, but only 10 have combined to play them under par (including their score at the time of a missed cut). Those 10 golfers:
- Rory McIlroy: -41
- Scottie Scheffler: -36
- Cameron Smith: -21
- Viktor Hovland: -14
- Matt Fitzpatrick: -13
- Tommy Fleetwood: -12
- Jon Rahm: -11
- Xander Schauffele: -8
- Cameron Young: -8
- Shane Lowry: -2
Four of those men have won majors since 2022 (Scheffler, Smith, Fitzpatrick and Rahm). McIlroy was one of the six who did not, finishing second twice, third once and in the top eight across seven of those eight majors.
How far do you want to unwind this thread? McIlroy's T6 at Hoylake was his 30th top 10 in 59 major starts (50.1%) and his 20th in the 34 starts since he last won a major in 2014 (58.8%).
For context, in Tiger Woods' first 59 major starts, he notched 34 top 10s (57.6%). Phil Mickelson put up 25 in his first 59 starts (42.4%). Brooks Koepka has 18 in 38 starts, which means he needs to go 12 for his next 21 just to match McIlroy.
Rory's numbers are both commensurate with some of the all-time greats and sometimes difficult to reconcile with his major total, which has remained on four for nine years.
Rory McIlroy: 20th top-10 finish in major in last 9 seasons (0 wins in span)— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) July 23, 2023
Since the first Masters in 1934, McIlroy is the only player with a 9-year span in the majors with 20+ top-10s but no wins.
Over the course of a career, it's relatively easier to accomplish what Brian Harman did last week than what McIlroy has over the last two years. Historically, we have seen plenty of golfers catch fire over 72 holes and achieve something they could never replicate. That happens.
What doesn't happen, by definition, is playing at McIlroy's level for two straight years. Eight golfers could win eight majors. Only one can be the best in the aggregate.
The infuriating part about golf is that the most difficult thing to accomplish is often not the most rewarding.
What's encouraging about McIlroy is that he's inching closer to winning a fifth major. So many of those top 10s from 2015-21 were of the non-contending variety: a Sunday 66 to finish T7 but with no real chance to win.
The last several have been different. Rory led the 2022 PGA Championship after Round 1. He led the 150th Open Championship with 12 holes to go. He warred with Wyndham Clark at the 2023 U.S. Open, ultimately falling one stroke short. He hung around the non-Harman lead throughout the week at Hoylake. If most of those 30 top 10s were through the backdoor, these top fives have at least been through a side entrance or perhaps the front.
Outside of his four major wins, McIlroy's three best major performances ever have come in the last two years. Consider this: From 2015-21, his expected major win total was 0.20, according to Data Golf. (Over the course of 26 majors, he would have been expected to win one-fifth of a major based on his play.) Over the last two years, that expected win total skyrocketed to 0.92; statistically, he was expected to win one of the last eight he's played.
One can suggest McIlroy's last two years have been just like all the rest, but that's simply inaccurate.
It's not extrapolate that data. If McIlroy keeps up this level of play over two-year stretches for the next 10 years, two or three majors should eventually go his way. And if they do? Well, all of a sudden he's no longer tied with Jim Barnes and Bobby Locke on the all-time major list with four. Instead, he's tied with Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead with seven.
"Over the last two years, would I have loved to have picked one of those off that I finished up there [on the leaderboard]? Absolutely," McIlroy said. "But every time I tee it up -- or most times I tee it up -- I'm right there. I can't sit here and be too frustrated. My game is ... you think about my performances in the majors between like 2016 and 2019, it's a lot better than that [now]. Again, I'm optimistic about the future and just got to keep plugging away."
It may sound strange, but it may be Mickelson's career that McIlroy is most closely emulating. While their major-winning timelines are opposite, their overall achievements are similar.
|Golfer||Major wins||Major top 5 rate|
Rory McIlroy (career)
Phil Mickelson (as of 2016)
McIlroy has 17 top-five major finishes in his career. This is a better indication of near wins at majors compared to looking at top 10s. He finishes in the top five 29% of the time. That's a great rate, and it lines up nicely with that of Mickelson. Lefty has 29 top fives in 121 starts at major championships, a rate of 24%. However, if you want to take it back to the end of 2016 when Mickelson was 45 -- 11 years older than McIlroy now -- and nearly won the Open against Henrik Stenson at Royal Troon, his rate was 28%. This is more emblematic of his overall career. Even though he has two top fives (including a win!) since 2016, that rate has gone down significantly as he's aged and will continue to do so until he retires.
Rory has long been mentioned as the "next Tiger." That is (obviously?) incorrect. Nobody is the "next" Tiger; perhaps nobody ever will be. But Rory could have a career that compares to Phil, one of the 10-12 best golfers of all-time and a helluva historic figure for the sport.
The recipe for non-Tiger superstars to win major championships is as follows: Put yourself in contention in as many as possible, and a handful will fall your way. Could Phil have won more than he did? Of course. He could have won three U.S. Opens, that Open against Stenson and probably another Masters. Could he have lost more than he did? Absolutely. That's how majors go. Sometimes, the leaders falter and you stumble into a jacket. Sometimes, the cup looks as wide as the River Dee and Harman makes everything he looks at.
McIlroy understands this, of course. He knows the way he's playing in majors right now -- if sustainable -- will result in a couple more trophies in addition to the four he already possesses.
The current rhetoric about what McIlroy should or should not be trying is amusing. He's basically four shots from having six majors. Rory should do nothing other than exactly what he's been doing. That was a worthwhile conversation for most of the seven years prior, but over the last two, he's proven his mettle.
The flip side of this is that he's now missed the best chances he's had to win a major since 2014. How many of those does one get? Perhaps that's the beautiful chaos of it. If McIlroy keeps playing like this, he will get a lot of chances. But can one play like this for 10 more years? At age 34, that seems ambitious.
"Rory has to bring his 'A' game," said three-time major winner Padraig Harrington on Sunday at Hoylake. "That's just it. I see he's pretty much down where I am putting this week, and I can tell you, that's pretty miserable. He's not going to win tournaments putting like that this week. There's too many good players for you to go out there and not have all of your game at a decent level and some of your game at a really good level. That's just the way it is. You can't just rely on -- it all has to fire. That's the reality of it, and you only get four of those a year."
Four a year. Amid all the change that has happened in golf, that remains a constant. Even golf's best stars only get four rips at the biggest prizes in the sport. That's the frustrating part of it but also what makes it so fascinating and wonderful.