Back in the days when Rory McIlroy was collecting majors rather like other people gather up souvenirs, there were two in the future that he circled with particular relish.
One was The Open at St Andrews in 2015. ‘And we all know how that went,’ said the Northern Irishman, drolly, about a major he had to sit out after damaging ankle ligaments playing five-a-side football.
The other was the US PGA Championship taking place next week at Quail Hollow, just outside Charlotte, North Carolina. ‘You can be sure I haven’t been anywhere near a football pitch in the build-up to this one,’ he added.
It comes at a critical juncture in the 28-year-old’s career. It’s 10 majors now since his last victory, the longest drought he has suffered, and another blank would open the door for his rival Jordan Spieth to claim the title and complete the career grand slam before him.
It comes during a stop-start season filled with more injury and upheaval, exemplified by the eye-opening decision to sack long-time caddie JP Fitzgerald last Monday.
Yet McIlroy knows a victory would change everything. Asked how he would sum up a year if that was his only win, McIlroy emphasised that majors are the name of the game, stressing: ‘It would be an absolutely great year, no question.’
So why circle this particular major? Unusually for a tournament staging a grand slam, Quail Hollow is an annual pit-stop on the PGA Tour, the home of the Wells Fargo Championship.
In 2010, on his first visit, McIlroy shot a final-round 62 to claim his first PGA Tour victory. Two years later he lost a thrilling shootout to Rickie Fowler, before winning it again in 2015.
‘The nice thing for me is I’m going there knowing it won’t be set up too differently from the PGA Tour,’ said McIlroy. ‘It will be the same sort of shots I need to hit and I’ve shown in the past I can play them. So yeah, it’s been on my mind for a while. I’ve got a good chance at this one.’
That brings its own attendant pressures, of course. Augusta National is another course that fits his eye where he has not yet delivered. He has talked of playing ‘tight’ golf at the Masters, which might explain the presence of Rory’s best man Harry Diamond as caddie, with his easy Belfast manner and dry wit.
‘It’s good to have him on the bag,’ said McIlroy, at this week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. ‘He’s keeping it pretty light-hearted and positive, which all helps.’
McIlroy certainly looked relaxed here, as he played his way into contention in a tournament for the first time since March. Rounds of 67, 69 left him tied for third on four under at halfway with world No 2 Hideki Matsuyama and Zach Johnson, who won the Open Rory sat out in 2015. Three shots separated him from American pace-setter Jimmy Walker, who defends his PGA title next week, with Belgian Thomas Pieters on five under.
Also in contention at four back was Spieth, who is shaping up nicely for his historic tilt next week at becoming the youngest player to complete the career grand slam.
Not that he is putting pressure on himself. ‘I know I’ll do it one day,’ said the genial Texan, with all the confidence of a man who has only just turned 24.