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.
“His familiar right-to-left ball flight has gone to a little bit of a cut shot,” McDowell said. “I know he has been working hard on that shot, but he just looks a little underneath it and the right side of the golf course is now in play for him, and he doesn’t have that flight we are all used to seeing.
‘‘I warmed up beside him on the range (the morning he withdrew) and it wasn’t the normal display of ‘flushery’ that we normally see. There’s a word. I felt he was a little off with his swing this morning and there were a few moans and groans coming from the bay next to me, and that’s not like him. It is normally a display, normally a clinic with superlatives from the coach and caddie being thrown out in the background.”
At Doral, where he made his first cut of the season, McIlroy showed signs of improvement. He finished with three consecutive under-par rounds, including a bogey-free 7-under 65 on Sunday that was the lift his confidence needed.
“I probably wear my heart on my sleeve a bit with my golf,” he said. “If I have a bad round, it’s sort of like the end of the world, but if I play a good one, I’m happy again. You know, that’s just the way it goes. I was pretty down about my game coming into this week, but a few days like I’ve played, you know, it does my confidence a world of good.
“A day like today felt like a long way away, if I’m honest. Just goes to show, it’s not as far away as you think. That’s been one of my problems. I always think when I’m playing bad that it’s further away than it is. And I guess that’s just where I have to stay patient, and you know, let whatever happens, happens, and know that if I put in the hard work, that the results will bear fruit. Whether that’s sooner or later, it doesn’t really matter.”
McIlroy showed that last year. He came into the Masters red hot, only to finish in a disappointing tie for 40th. Then, during a stretch from May to July, he missed cuts at the Players, European PGA at Wentworth, Memorial and U.S. Open and finished 60th at the British Open.
The next month he went out and scorched the field by a record eight strokes in the PGA at Kiawah. On Saturday, he stormed past 36-hole leader Woods before rain suspended play. McIlroy came back Sunday to accelerate away from everyone by the same margin he’d won the U.S. Open at Congressional the year before.
“To sit up here and see this trophy and call myself a multiple major champion … not many people have done it, and yeah, I’m very privileged to join such an elite list of names,” he said.
Whether he’s ready this year to add a green jacket to his résumé is as uncertain as his swing. But he proved last year that his game is never as far away as it looks.
“It’s early in the season and there is a lot going on in his world,” McDowell said. “He is under the biggest spotlight you can be under. He is the best player in the world, coming off a phenomenal season and just signed the biggest deal in golf. He is the most marketable player in world golf outside of Tiger, and away you go. All these events conspire against you. He is one 65 away from being back.
‘‘That is the fickleness of this sport. He shoots 65 today, and everyone shrugs their shoulders and goes, ‘Rory’s back.’ You don’t write that kid off. He has got the X-factor, and he will be OK.”