When he left the most recent major venue, Rory McIlroy was on top of the world, with his second major championship blowout win in two years and the No. 1 ranking firmly in his grip.
A 2012 season that went through an unsettling lull ended in full crescendo for McIlroy after the PGA triumph, with consecutive PGA Tour playoff wins and a victory in the European Tour finale in Dubai. He clinched money titles on the U.S. and European tours and was crowned player of the year by each.
Three months into the season, McIlroy has lost his No. 1 ranking, apologized for walking off a course mid-round and struggled with his swing as he adjusted to new equipment. With very little competitive golf under his belt, McIlroy decided at the last minute to play the Texas Open the week before the Masters Tournament.
Not exactly the best buildup before driving down Magnolia Lane.
“I think coming off the back of last year – five wins, a second major championship in two years – I just really wanted to try and continue that and continue where I left off in 2012, and it’s been frustrating that I haven’t been able to do that,” McIlroy said. “And it doesn’t make a difference what deal or what clubs I play, that’s irrelevant. It’s about me on the golf course and the expectations and the pressure that I put myself under.”
Said fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell: “When you start trying to prove things to other people and you stop playing for yourself, it is a very dangerous place to be.”
The pressure the 23-year-old had been experiencing became unbearable at PGA National in March. It was the same course where he first ascended to world No. 1 with a 2012 victory over a hard-charging Woods.
With all the questions swirling about his equipment change and the kinks in his swing, McIlroy unravelled. Already 7-over through eight holes and facing another penalty after hitting into the water, McIlroy simply shook hands with his playing partners and walked off the course, citing mental fatigue.
He later claimed his reason for withdrawing was because of wisdom tooth pain, but a few days later he retracted that and candidly ’fessed up to his mistake in judgment.
“I think it was a buildup of everything,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform and I’ve been working so hard and not really getting much out of it. You know, that’s just been the frustrating thing, and that’s what happened. … I just sort of let it all get to me.”
McIlroy said he learned from the mistake.
“I learned that when the going gets tough, I’ve got to stick in there a bit more and I’ve got to grind it out,” he said. “There’s no excuse for quitting.”
McIlroy came back the next week at Doral determined to resolve the issues with his swing – trying to restore the technique in his takeaway that carried him to the top of the world the season before.
The difference is obvious to his peers.