Golf review of 2017: McIlroy left behind as big rivals win the big titles
The past 12 months could have been very different for Rory McIlroy had he not lost a play-off to Graeme Storm at the South African Open this week last year.
McIlroy was playing in the event as a favour to host Ernie Els and almost came away with the victory, but rather than establishing a springboard for the new campaign, he fell foul both to Storm and a rib problem that was to blight his year.
As it transpired, the Holywood man’s high hopes turned into a season of frustration that saw him fail to really compete at any of the Majors for the third year on the bounce and also have a winless year for the first time since 2008.
That injury saw McIlroy’s early-season schedule put on hold, and in his time off he could only sit and watch as fellow members of the game’s elite in Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama, Dustin Johnson and highly-rated newcomer Jon Rahm all recorded victories on the PGA Tour, while a success in Abu Dhabi propelled Tommy Fleetwood to the top of the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, a position he would not relinquish all year.
World number one Johnson set about copper-fastening that position with three wins on the bounce in February and March, the latter two of them in World Golf Championships, in Mexico and the Matchplay in Texas, when Rahm was defeated in the final.
Such was his form that ‘DJ’ went into the first Major of the year, the Masters at Augusta, as an overwhelming favourite, with the fit-again McIlroy (right) and the rest seemingly playing for minor places.
However, it was Johnson’s turn to fall foul of injury, slipping and injuring his back on the eve of the event before pulling out just before his opening round.
In his absence, one of the most romantic stories to hit sport in recent years played out as Sergio Garcia finally broke his Major duck at the 74th time of asking after a thrilling final round duel with Justin Rose, whose putt on the 72nd green slipped agonisingly past before the Spaniard claimed victory with a birdie at the first play-off hole.
With the coveted Green Jacket on his shoulders, an emotional Garcia voiced his relief at finally joining the Major leagues on the 60th birthday of idol Seve Ballesteros.
“It’s amazing. To do it on his 60th birthday and to join him and [Jose Maria] Olazabal, my two idols in golf my whole life, it’s something amazing.”
With Augusta in the rearview mirror for another year, the focus turned to the US Open at a controversial new venue, Erin Hills in Wisconsin.
With a monstrous course in use, it was no real surprise to see one of the game’s big hitters emerge victorious, with Brooks Koepka striding to a comfortable four-shot victory over Brian Harman and Matsuyama, with a fourth-place finish seeing Fleetwood tighten his grip further on the Race to Dubai.
While the four Irish players in the field struggled, one of their compatriots did taste success as Portrush caddie Ricky Ellliot used all of his experience to guide Koepka to the biggest victory of his career.
As the summer hit its peak, the focus of the golfing world turned to the north coast as Portstewart staged the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.
McIlroy, in his role as host, enticed some of the leading lights in the global game to the county Derry seaside, although he forgot to bring his own form and departed meekly at the halfway stage.
In his absence it was left to burgeoning superstar Rahm to pick up the pieces and the Irish Open trophy thanks to a swashbuckling display of golf that spreadeagled a top-class field before promising to return for more at Ballyliffin in 2018.
“I’ve had such a great time,’ said the Spaniard.
“It’s a beautiful place, people are great, the food is great.
“I’m sure the next course [Ballyliffin] is going to be as special as this one, so I would not miss it for the world.”
A fortnight later Rahm headed to Royal Birkdale for the Open Championship as one of the favourites but finished well down the field as an all-American duel between Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar thrilled the galleries.
McIlroy started disastrously, going five-over after his first six holes of the opening round, but to his credit he battled back to get on the fringes of contention.
In the end, he settled for a share of fourth, seven shots adrift of Spieth, who pocketed his third Major triumph after a last nine holes when he was erratic and inspired in equal measure, channelling his inner Ballesteros to see off the steady Kuchar by three shots.
McIlroy’s return to something like form continued a fortnight later when he was fifth in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio as Hideki Matsuyama took the title.
That sent him into the US PGA with his tail up, not least because it was held at Quail Hollow in North Carolina, a venue he has won twice at in the past.
However, once more in a Major week, McIlroy couldn’t get going and ended up in a share of 22nd, well off the pace set by Justin Thomas, who claimed his first Major and fourth title of a stunning season in a manner that suggests he will be around for years to come.
And Thomas wasn’t finished there, winning the Dell Technologies Championship on his way to succeeding McIlroy as FedEx Cup champion.
With the big business in America wrapped up by the end of September, focus turned to the European Tour and the fight for the Race to Dubai.
Fleetwood held all the cards going into the last few weeks, but at the start of October a first Irish victory of the season arrived when Paul Dunne broke his professional duck thanks to a stunning closing round of 61 in the British Masters at Close House on the outskirts of Newcastle.
McIlroy chased him home for second and a week later called time on his season after the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland, vowing to come back stronger in 2018 after an extended break, with winning the Masters and completing a career Grand Slam the main aim.
“The next big thing is April and that’s really what my focus will be on from now until then,” he said.
It appeared that Fleetwood would cruise to the crown of European top dog, but Justin Rose had other ideas, finally shaking off his hangover from the Masters to clinch back-to-back victories in Shanghai and Turkey and ensure it all hinged on the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
That event, and the Race to Dubai, appeared to be in Rose’s grasp when he led late on Sunday, but a wobble down the stretch let Fleetwood take the season-long crown.
Rahm put the icing on his own 2017 cake with the DP Tour Championship win, with Shane Lowry recording his best result of the season as runner-up to suggest a real return to form could be in store in 2018 for the Offaly man.
He’s not the only Irishman hoping the new year brings a reversal of fortunes, with Graeme McDowell down at 185th in the world rankings after a year that delivered just one top-10, in Las Vegas in November.
Padraig Harrington produced some decent golf in 2017, finishing fourth at the Scottish Open and the Turkish Airlines Open to suggest his race isn’t quite run, while Dunne and Lowry will both be targetting a win, and possibly a Ryder Cup spot for France in October.
But if Irish golf is to return to the Major glories of a few years ago, McIlroy has to lead the way.
He re-appears in Abu Dhabi later this month, when he will hope to start the long climb back to the top of the game.