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Returning to a scene of his prime, Rory McIlroy reminds us how hard majors are to win

The 2021 PGA Championship is at the Ocean Course, where Rory McIlroy won in 2012. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — As a wise man with a cigar dangling from his mouth once said about golf majors, “They’re hard to win.” It’s just that sometimes certain wunderkinds come along and make everyone forget the adage.

Everyone forgot seven Augusts ago in the onrushing darkness in Louisville, when Rory McIlroy won a second major in a row and a fourth in his first 24 professional attempts. The PGA Championship at Valhalla ended, and the sky appeared to be both dark and the limit.

“Summer’s going all right, thanks,” McIlroy said in droll answer to a droll question about his summer at age 25, which included consecutive wins at the British Open at Royal Liverpool, the WGC-Bridgestone in Akron, Ohio, and a PGA that made him only the third player to reach four major titles that young. Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods had been the others, so the revving of the guess-how-many-he-will-win machine proved almost rational.

It’s never rational, of course, so as the 103rd PGA Championship begins here on the Ocean Course on a sublime island where the gators lurk in the marshes and the deer come right up to the screen porch, McIlroy’s total remains four, 23 majors after Louisville. It’s not a disgrace. It’s not really even all that much of a failure. They’re hard to win, after all.

It’s a McIlroy-minded event in the run-up here because the PGA, golf’s second annual major and formerly its fourth, returns not only to the longest major course ever — 7,876 this time — but also to the site of a McIlroy height. In the only previous major here, the PGA of August 2012, he trailed by one after the first round and two after the second before leading by three after the third and eight as the traffic trickled home. It was a feat of dominance to go alongside his 2011 U.S. Open romp at Congressional, and here’s the first time major golf has returned to either place.

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“But yeah, it’s nine years ago,” McIlroy said Tuesday. “It seems longer. It seems like there’s been a lot of time that’s passed, and I feel like I’m a different person and a different player. You know, it’s a different time of year. Probably going to be a different wind than we played the last time, so it’s going to play like a completely different golf course.” This week it’s all breathable sea air and mid-70s wonder, but he remembers heat and humidity and how the “paspalum was really strong and dense and lush,” and it’s always hard to forget lush paspalum.

Still, with all that major difference and all his major dearth, with a 24-year-old defending champion in Collin Morikawa and a breakthrough Masters champion in Hideki Matsuyama, McIlroy is a hip pick to win, owing much to his victory this month at Quail Hollow in Charlotte.

That ended one dearth, 18 months without a tour victory. This other dearth, the one in majors, has featured no real blunders, disasters, cruelties or loud contentions. He nudged up closely to the top in the Sunday frays at the 2018 Masters and 2018 British Open, for example. He has wound up top-five six times. He won the 2019 Players and the 2019 Canadian, the latter by seven. He has spoken often of getting it together and trying to get it together, or of being closer to getting it together than it feels. There was that time he mentioned having tried to keep up with Bryson DeChambeau’s power, an idea surely unwise.

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All this time since 2014, he still can utter words that tell of his rarefied vision of his promise. He looked back at 2012 as a guy who had won one major already back then, as if that’s common, and spoke of the removal of one very demanding monkey: “A lot of guys have won one major, but it’s a big hurdle to get to the second. It was good to get that monkey off my back, especially here, playing so well. So, yeah, it was a big deal. I definitely didn’t want to be stuck on one for a long time, so happy to get that second.”

When, six majors after that, there came a third and a fourth, the onlookers let the enchantment block their wisdom, which is, after all, among the joys of sports. That day in Louisville was the day Rickie Fowler really thought he could win and felt the sting of nibbling closely and a 45-year-old Phil Mickelson wound up bemoaning that bogey on No. 16 from forever one shot behind McIlroy. “Better than everyone else right now,” Mickelson said of McIlroy. “Yeah, he’s good. Really good.”

Asked by reasonable reporters for reasonable commentary, Henrik Stenson wondered aloud. The eventual winner of the 2016 British Open, nobody’s idea of some rash sports-radio caller, said: “It’s always hard to compare players. If he’s not the same [as Woods], he’s not far behind.” Then, “And if I told you that if he were to win at least one major in the next five or seven years every year, you wouldn’t be surprised, would you?”

No.

McIlroy’s fellow Northern Irelander, Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion at Pebble Beach, also qualifies as a reasonable man, but the happenings were so dazzling that he had to reach into the lexicon for that old adjective “Tiger-esque.” He said: “You know, it’s beginning to look a little Tiger-esque, I suppose. I said to the boys at the Open [when McIlroy won that], I didn’t think we were going to see the new Tiger era, as in someone creating their own Tiger-esque era just yet. I guess you could say I’m not eating my words, but I’m certainly starting to chew on them right now. … When the kid is playing well, he’s pretty tough to live with. Pretty special stuff.”

Then reasonable people asked McDowell to project McIlroy’s eventual number of major titles, a topic generally suitable for right around the third beer. “You know, eight,” he said.

Then came the question: “Do you think that’s low?”

Do you think that’s low?

That epitomized the moment. McIlroy fielded questions with good graces about having his own era — “I don’t really know how to answer that” — and about being alongside Nicklaus and Woods — “I try and put all this talk aside every time it comes up” — and he said, “Sometimes I think that people are too quick to jump to conclusions and jump on the bandwagon and jump on certain things.”

That would be people, all right. Now that golf has taught even more about people and McIlroy’s trajectory has gone as it has gone, he’s here with the ocean wind saying: “I’ve been playing golf for 30 years, so I sort of — it’s automatic. I don’t really think about it. I get the wind, I get the number, I try to visualize what I’m going to do, and then I try to replicate what I have just visualized.” And every once in a while somebody does that so well for so long that everybody forgets it’s so hard.

Read more on golf:

What you need to know about the PGA Championship

Best bets to win the PGA Championship at the blustery Ocean Course

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