Has it already been six years since Rory McIlroy sacked Congressional with a record-shattering performance that heralded his announcement to the golf world like no one had since Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters? And has it already been three years since Rory's last major win - a thrilling, if forgettable, victory over Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler at Valhalla in the '14 PGA?
At that moment - 25 years old and with four majors to his name - McIlroy was tied with Jack Nicklaus in Slams won by age 25 and trailed Tiger Woods, who hit his apex in his triple-major 24-year-old season of 2000, by two Slams. The question wasn't if Rory McIlroy would get to double-digit majors, but when. And though Jack and Tiger were faraway targets (with Tiger perhaps being, don't laugh, a moving one), it wasn't unreasonable to wonder whether Rory could ever put himself into their rarified air.
Now, three years later, with Rory slipping well behind the pace of golf's two greats, the better question isn't if he can get to them but whether he can get to Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Bobby Jones and Arnold Palmer - immortal golfers who might not even have half as many Slams as the Golden Bear.
How many majors will Rory McIlroy win in his career?
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It's instructive when playing golf guessing games to remember just how tough major victories are to come by. There was a time during his prime when Tiger didn't win in 10 tries. Nicklaus went three full years in his prime without hoisting a trophy. For Rory to get to, say, Gary Player's nine majors he'd need to win five more or, in simpler terms, he'd need to have Phil Mickelson's career on top of what he's already done in his own. (Maybe that's not so daunting. Phil infamously didn't win his first major until he was 34. Rory has six years before he gets there.)
Four is already historic, tying McIlroy for 20th all time. Five gets him into the "great" group alongside Phil Mickelson and Seve Ballesteros. Six is the "very great" group - it's just a twosome featuring Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo. Legendary status comes at seven, the number of majors won by Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead. Only 11 men in history (a list that includes golfers who won their majors before World War II) have gotten to seven. Tom Watson is at eight majors (sixth all time), Ben Hogan and Gary Player are at nine. And, of modern golfers, only Tiger (14) and Jack (18) are in double-digits.
There are no definites in hypotheticals but we feel fairly comfortable saying Rory isn't going to win 10 more majors (to tie Tiger) or 14 more majors (to tie Jack). Looking at that graph of majors won by age, Rory has already fallen hopelessly behind both. He'd need to win a major every year until he was 38 years old just to tie Tiger, something that might not sound impossible but consider that Tiger's longest stretch of seasons with a major victory was four, the same as Jack's. As for Jack, Rory is still only three back of the pace but, again, three majors won would constitute a very successful next four seasons. There's not much catch-up to be played. (Also, that graph stops at 40, leaving off Jack's 1986 Masters title - his 18th major.)
Rory started fast. He won the 2011 U.S. Open, went 5 starts w/out win (nothing better than T25 actually), then won the '12 PGA, went six starts without a win and then went back-to-back at 2014 British and PGA. Beginning with Congressional, he won 4 Slams in 15 starts.
Tiger, on the other hand, won the '97 Masters and then went 10 starts without a win. And then, the run: winning five of the next six majors to go 6/17 starting with his historic run at Augusta. After winning No. 8 he went 10 majors without another victory before winning 6 of 14. Tiger, essentially, had two dominant stretches: the first from the 1999 PGA to the 2002 U.S. Open (seven of 11) and the second from the 2005 Masters to the 2008 U.S. Open (six of 14). Every one of his majors was contained in those two runs, with the exception of his first.
Getty ImagesStephen Munday
Jack was the opposite of Tiger with his victories more spread out. He won majors in 10 of 14 years to start his victory total. He was quickest with a follow-up win after his first, winning No. 2 in the third start after. Overall, from 1962 to 1980, Jack won 12 of 19 years majors (including five doubles) with the '86 Masters being the outlier.
Interestingly, all four players won their first four majors in a span of 15 starts. The difference is that Tiger won in starts Nos. 16 and 17. Jack won Nos. 19, 21 and 24. Erin Hills will be the 25th major for Rory since Congo. It's been eight starts since his last win (he skipped the 2015 British) but he's had a T10 in five of the eight starts he's made since his last win, suggesting he's close.
So, Jack and Tiger are out. Maybe some of the other greats can provide some insight into where Rory will reach? Or not.
Getty ImagesDavid Cannon
Arnold Palmer didn't win his first major until turning 28. The last of his seven came when he was 34. All of his majors were won in a stretch exactly as long as the one from Rory's first major to now. That's it. The most famous golfer on the planet only had a six-year reign in majors. (Then again, the other most famous golfer on the planet won his 14 majors in an 11-year stretch so maybe golf greatness is more condensed than we thought.)
Gary Player had four majors at 32 and then won five more, including two at 38 and one at 42. Then there's Tom Watson who, despite almost winning a major the age of 59, last won a Slam at age 33 - eight wins condensed into eight years. If Rory follows Player's route, maybe 10 isn't out of the question. If he's Watson or Palmer then he has four or five more years to add his total before his window closes.
Getty ImagesGetty Images
What McIlroy has going for him is that he still has four majors at an age when some of the guys near the top of the major list had none. Phil, Sir Nick, Sam Snead, Arnie and Ben Hogan - none had a single major at 28 and two months. If he proves himself to be an all-time great, then winning six or seven from this point onward is a reasonable task that's been accomplished by a dozen men. But those men weren't playing with the pressure that comes from winning four so early.
With that in mind, we're going to set the over/under on Rory McIlroy career majors starts at 8.5. Doubling seems reasonable, being Phil from 28 onward seems like a task.
I'm taking the under and saying seven, a total that would still rank him amongst the all-time greats but wouldn't be what anyone had imagined when Rory stood on the 18th at Valhalla with a limitless future ahead.