It’s a glib Hallmark sentiment to note that 155 men departed the 104th PGA Championship disappointed and only one didn’t. A handful of the 20 club professionals competing surely had no real expectation of making the cut and were happy to make folks proud at the club back home. Same for a few ex-champions content to enjoy a 36-hole stroll down memory lane. Disappointment is a burden particular to those with expectations, and within that there are tiers.
Dispirited. Dejected. Despondent. Distressed. Whatever box a player checks isn’t necessarily related to his departure time. A man who packs up Friday evening might be deflated, but he’s hardly feeling worse than one who gets into contention and comes up painfully short.
Some of the best players in the world left their G5 contrails over Tulsa a couple days ago. Like world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, doomed by a second-round 75. And Dustin Johnson, after a pair of 73s. Patrick Cantlay missed the cut by more than a touchdown. Sergio Garcia bade farewell to the PGA Tour—if we are to believe his recent petulant declaration—with his 12th major MC since winning the Masters.
Others made the cut but didn’t make any headway, including Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Brooks Koepka. Tiger Woods falls into a grey area, discouraged by his withdrawal but perhaps encouraged that he managed another major start in his recovery. But some will leave sorely disappointed. Pissed even.
Rory McIlroy grabbed the first round lead then stalled for three days, his run of four consecutive birdies early Sunday briefly teasing a last gasp charge that sputtered out into an 8th place finish. This was the 28th major he has contested since that last victory at Valhalla in 2014. He’s finished inside the top 10 in 15 of them, but not always—not often, even—in actual contention.
Believers will see McIlroy’s performance at Southern Hills as testament to his determination and ability to put himself in the mix. Doubters will present it as more evidence of softness and inability to get over the line. Such is the era in which he lives and the burden he lives with. The same social media commandos would have slated Jack Nicklaus for his 19 runner-up finishes in majors, a statistic that is really proof of just how difficult they are to win. For now, McIlroy will have to comfort himself with the knowledge that the millstone of expectation is never draped on an also-ran.
This was assuredly an opportunity that slipped by for McIlroy. The playoff he missed by three shots was between two men who finished Sunday evening exactly where he had finished Thursday morning: 5-under par. He knows great careers are judged on these tournaments, on a player’s ability to work his way into a position to go for the kill. He also knows his dozen worldwide victories since the ’14 PGA Championship don’t much mitigate his lack of success in majors. Even in his own mind, it might actually accentuate it.
But careers have chapters, and McIlroy wouldn’t have to look far at Southern Hills for proof of that.
Forty years ago, Raymond Floyd went wire-to-wire here to win his third major at the PGA Championship. Six years had passed since his second major, and the second came seven years after the first. Floyd joined the PGA Tour in 1963 and his first five starts were T57-MC-MC-MC-Win. He went on to win the ’69 PGA Championship. He was 26 years old, but also a hard-partying playboy. That changed one March morning in 1974.
Floyd was on his way to missing the cut at the Greater Jacksonville Open when a pal approached and urged him to withdraw so they could be at the track that afternoon. He did, and returned to the hotel for his belongings. “I came here for four days, and I’m staying for four days,” his wife, Maria, told him.
They stayed another two days, during which time Maria told her husband that if he wasn’t committed to golf then he was still young enough to find another career. It was, Floyd told me years later, a slap upside the head. The second chapter in Floyd’s career—the period in which he became Raymond Floyd—was authored in that hotel room.
Of his 22 PGA Tour wins, 17 came after that conversation. He won the Masters by eight in 1976, the PGA Championship by three in’82, and a chaotic shootout at Shinnecock Hills in ’86 to become, at the time, the oldest U.S. Open champion. He damned near added another two Green Jackets as he neared 50, finishing second in ’90 and ’92.
McIlroy is 33, and is neither partier nor a playboy. He is not frittering away his talent. If his clock is ticking, it is slow and faint. The entire second half of his career lies ahead. He isn’t slumping—he’s won twice in the last year. Sure, each missed opportunity in the majors must hurt, but only he knows if each one weakens his resolve. The frequency and good humor with which he puts himself in a position to be disappointed suggests that his determination is undimmed. All he needs is the results, and he has ample time to render this barren run a distant memory.
This is a sport where even the best lose much more than they win. It’s the manner of the losing that often hurts most. Leaving Tulsa without a trophy isn’t necessarily painful for McIlroy, but he will rue his failure to build on the early opportunity and give himself a chance on the weekend. When he’s done licking that wound, he’ll do what 100-odd other guys who competed here will do: dust himself off and get ready to risk having his heart broken all over again in 25 days at the U.S. Open. It’s what they do, all in the hope of that one day when the heartbreak doesn’t happen.
Published at Golfweek.com, May 22, 2022.