HOYLAKE – The most telling comment from Rory McIlroy about this British Open, and his hopes of ending an astonishing nine-year drought in the majors, is that he said nothing at all.
For the second straight major, McIlroy removed himself from the lineup of pre-tournament news conferences, instead offering a few vague quotes through the R&A and random interviews.
The attention on him is greater than ever, on and off the golf course.
He has been the strongest voice for the PGA Tour in its battle with LIV Golf, now shockingly a proposed partnership. Inside the ropes, he is coming off a win at the Scottish Open and now returns to Royal Liverpool, where he won wire-to-wire the last time the Open was here in 2014.
Rain fell on the already green links of Hoylake on Tuesday, conditions that suited McIlroy in his previous four major titles, all of which led Padraig Harrington to refer to McIlroy as a “person of interest” this week.
“Everything seems to be setting up nicely,” Harrington said.
The question now is whether McIlroy is like other multiple major champions who collected all their trophies in a short period of time, or whether this nine-year drought is a long aberration.
Harrington was one of those players, collecting his three titles in a span of six majors. Jordan Spieth won three legs of Grand Slam over three years. Nick Price won three out of nine majors at the height of his game and never got another.
McIlroy won his four majors from the 2011 U.S. Open through the 2014 PGA Championship, and he looked to just be getting started. He is 34, considered the prime years for a golfer, though he also is in his 16th full year as a pro.
“Patience — it's a horrible thing for Rory,” Harrington said. "Oftentimes, you win your first, maybe there's two or three in there pretty quickly. From 10 years ago, there's more players around. It's not as free and easy, is it? It's not a foregone conclusion.
“We keep seeing that — players come into the pomp of their career, they look unbeatable for a period of time, usually two seasons,” he said. “Look, he can win any week and he's got to have good feelings going into Hoylake.”
Twenty-four players have won majors since McIlroy captured his last one at rain-soaked Valhalla in the 2014 PGA Championship, some multiple times — Brooks Koepka with five, Spieth with three, Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson with two each.
It's not getting any easier.
McIlroy returned to No. 2 in the world with his victory in the Scottish Open. He said he would have arrived at Hoylake with confidence even without winning based on his consistent play the last few months — six consecutive finishes in the top 10, including his runner-up finish in the U.S. Open last month that ran his drought to 33 majors without winning.
Rahm won the Masters in April, adding to his U.S. Open title two years ago.
“I can understand how when you get on a roll like that and win one, next time you're in position you win another, well, it's only fair to believe that the next one you're going to be ready to handle the moment,” he said.
Harrington's goal during his back-to-back British Open titles (2007-08) and the PGA Championship in 2008 was to get to the back nine and take it from there. Confidence was everything, and that starts with belief in his game.
He was asked his theory on players winning majors in bunches.
“The difference when you're winning those tournaments is you're not looking over your shoulder,” he said. “If you believe you can win with your ‘B’ game, your ‘A’ game shows up. If you think you need your ‘A’ game, your ‘B’ game turns up. That's the nature of golf.”
That has worked best for Koepka, who figures the majors are the easiest to win by eliminating who has realistic chances and what number of players are typically on their game that week. The list keeps shrinking.
He won four times in a span of four majors, and then he added his fifth at the PGA Championship in May, which he attributed mainly to finally feeling healthy again. And his love for the majors begins with discipline in knowing what shots to take and how to avoid big numbers.
“Just be as disciplined as you can and know where to miss it,” he said. “I think that's why I've had such success. It's just understanding the moment, the shot, where it needs to miss.”
At Royal Liverpool, that starts with avoiding the pot bunkers off the tee, and that's what McIlroy did so well in 2014 when he built a five-shot lead going into the final round and was never seriously threatened.
Golf felt easy then, and at times it still does.
McIlroy has won 19 times around the world since his last major. Of the players who went nine years or more between majors, only Gene Sarazen (1923 PGA to 1932 U.S. Open) won more often with 25. Back then, there were only three majors.
“He’s obviously a tremendously talented player and he’s put himself in position and it hasn’t happened yet. I can’t say what goes through his mind, obviously,” Rahm said. "He wants to get to five — not many players have gotten to five. He still has a lot of years to play ahead of him, so I know he wants to keep adding to that tally.
“I’m pretty sure he will get that number five at some point.”
AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports