Pressurised McIlroy - down to world No 8 - ends US season in gilded cage

Pressurised McIlroy - down to world No 8 - ends US season in gilded cage
Rory McIlroy during the first round of the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Erin, Wis. on Thursday, June 15, 2017. (Copyright USGA/John Gress)

Rory McIlroy during the first round of the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Erin, Wis. on Thursday, June 15, 2017. (Copyright USGA/John Gress)

When Rory McIlroy — now world No 8 — said after the US PGA that he was in two minds about whether or not to pull the plug on his season, he sounded like a man whose fate was in his own hands.

When he turned up 10 days later for his press conference ahead of the first FedExCup Playoff event, the Northern Trust, he was already sounding less like his own boss and more like a pawn in a merchandising chess match.

Why hadn't he decided to rehab his injury straight away, waved goodbye to the FedExCup and slipped away until 2018? 

Q. So was it internal pressures that made you feel like, I can do this and I want to do this, or were there some external pressures to not shut it down?
RORY McILROY: There was definitely external pressures. Yeah, of course there's external pressures. Look, it's not -- sometimes this decision doesn't just lie with you but with other factors, other factors. That was definitely a part of it. 

Having followed a T34 in The Northern Trust with a missed cut in the Dell Technologies Championship and a season-ending T58 in BMW Championship, McIlroy not only failed to make it to the Tour Championship in Atlanta this week, relinquishing his FedExCup title, he fell another two spots to eighth in the world.

If the rankings were calculated on points gained in 2017 alone, he would be 27th. As it is, the 28-year old is now trailing 33-year old Dustin Johnson by 5.4585 average points in the OWGR and also behind Jordan Spieth (24), Hideki Matsuyama (25), Justin Thomas (24), Jon Rahm (22), Jason Day (29) and Rickie Fowler (28) in the standings.

Where will he be in 12 months' time? Keen punters will already be scouring the net and going to sites like My Top Sportsbooks looking for insight on the 2017-18 season.

But much will depend on McIlroy's recovery from a rib injury, which first came to light in his first event of 2017 (which he lost in a playoff). 

He said before the Northern Trust that his fitness and medical team had advised him that there was no risk of further injury by playing on.  But when asked at Conway Farms last week about the external pressures he faced to play the FedExCup Playoffs, he said little but spoke volumes.

“Some decisions aren’t completely up to the individual,” McIlroy was quoted as saying in a Golf Channel news item by Will Gray that expanded on the pre-Northern Trust comments on "external pressures".

“There was outside expectation from elsewhere. I played these events for two reasons: thinking that I still had a chance, but for trying to fulfill obligations elsewhere. So there was two parts of it.”

Did he mean the PGA Tour, Nike, or new equipment providers TaylorMade? Having signed deals with Nike and TaylorMade this season worth a reported $300m, it's easy to see why McIlroy might feel a sense of obligation.

Were the Playoffs worth it? Now that he's out and still winless, the answer looks like it should be a resounding 'no'.

In admitting that his decision to tee it up in New York, Boston and Chicago was not entirely his own, McIlroy's low-key end to the PGA Tour season leaves him with much work to do to be ready for 2018 with his fitness, caddie, short iron play and putting all on the agenda.

Set to take six weeks off after he hangs up the clubs following next month's Alfred Dunhill Links Championship appearance with his father, he told Golf Channel: "I completely expect myself to play well next year. If I have a really good offseason and prepare and practice on the right things, come out mentally fresh and physically fresh, I feel like ’18 will be a really good year for me. And that’s sort of where my mind is at."

With a new Father & Son format event believed to be in the pipeline. McIlroy's appearance in Scotland with his father Gerry takes on added significance.

Newly married and playing with new clubs, a new golf ball, a potential new caddie and now, a new injury to manage, McIlroy might have all the money in the world but he's also got more obligations and pressures than most.

If he fails to win the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, he will have completed his first winless season as a professional since he took the plunge a decade ago.

As he said at The Open this year when reflecting on his first 10 years as a pro, it's all been beyond his wildest expectations:

"If someone told me, you're going to be a four-time major winner and you won The Open, and you're one leg away from the career Grand Slam, you've played on three winning Ryder Cup teams, you've won the Order of Merit three times in Europe, you've won the FedExCup in the States I'd be, like, yeah, I'll take that! That's pretty good."

More wins appear inevitable but in order to make his second decade as successful as the first, the pride of Co Down as a lot of winter work to do with his health, top of the agenda.

Having finished tied seventh in the Masters and tied fourth in The Open, he's clearly not far from his best. 

As he was quoted as saying in Global Golf Post today: "If I had to do it all over, I would skip the US Open and (have) taken a few more weeks off and let this injury heal 100 percent and get ready for the Open and the PGA. I felt like I was at a level where I could at least compete. I didn't want to miss another major championship. It just wasn't meant to be."