August 13, 2012
After Rory McIlroy’s 8 shot victory in the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, the sports world regaled him with praise. Sports Illustrated proclaimed that McIlroy’s victory was the beginning of “Golf’s New Era,” in the wake of Rory’s “historical” victory. Golf analysts pored over the perfection of his swing, and brimmed with anticipation over his inevitable rise to number 1.
Indeed, when McIlroy passed Luke Donald to become the number 1 golfer in the world, it seemed like a coronation rather than an achievement. It was expected. All of this success came before his 22nd birthday.
Then, McIlroy ran into, as an old-fashioned golf announcer would say, a spot of bother. He started off the 2012 season exactly as he finished the 2011 season – playing brilliantly. He finished 2nd at the Accenture Match Play Tournament (A World Golf Championship event), won the Honda Classic a week later, then finished third at the WGC-Cadillac Championship a week after that.
He didn’t play again until the Masters, where he finished in a tie for 40th. He shot a 77 in the third round, then a 76 in the fourth en route to a total score of 293, 5 over par for the championship. He followed that up by missing 3 cuts in his next 5 tournaments, then in a tie for 60th at the Open Championship at Royal Lytham.
Were the expectations placed on McIlroy unreasonable? Was the golf world so ready for another charismatic, young superstar to take the mantle from Tiger Woods that they overrated the young man from Northern Ireland?
Indeed, there have been many one-time major winners in the past that have remained one-time major winners. Golfers like Trevor Immelman, Charl Schwartzel, Michael Campbell, Jim Furyk, Rich Beem, Shawn Micheel, and countless others. They are all excellent golfers, but no one expected them to be the next Tiger or Jack or Phil.
For a time, it appeared that the unique faith the golf world placed in McIlroy was as misdirected as their one-time faith in David Duval. Duval had a great swing, was in great shape, but only won one major. Then, a series of problems, including a case of vertigo, dropped him from the top of the rankings. He never completely overcame the problems that affected his game and knocked him from his elite perch.
Rory McIlroy overcame his mid-season slump in 2012.
He bounced back from his disappointing week at Royal Lytham with a T5 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. It seems like, in 2012, whenever Rory needs a boost to his game, all he has to do was play in a WGC event. He is a combined -22 in the 2 WGC stroke play events in which he has played, and he made it to the finals of the match play event.
He rode his solid play at the Bridgestone into the PGA Championship. He got off to a great start, firing a 67 in round 1, but stumbled to a 75 in round 2. He re-established himself in round 3 with another 67. Then he put the hammer down on Sunday, and lapped the field with sizzling 66.
While the other contenders yanked shots into the rough and onto the sand dunes, trying to fight the hard crosswind, Rory was steady under pressure, and avoided big mistakes all day.
This is the McIlroy the pundits expected to see. He matched his physical talents with rock-solid mental fortitude.
As everyone knows by now, he blew his 3-round lead at the 2011 Masters when he shot an 80 on Sunday. Since then, it seems he has learned how to perform under pressure.
After that meltdown, he won the very next major he played (2011 U.S. Open), and added his second on Sunday on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island.
So now we know that McIlroy has the capacity to finish a tournament. He’s done it twice, and in grand fashion. He won the 2011 U.S. open by 8 strokes (-16), and he repeated the accomplishment at the 2012 PGA (-13). When McIlroy is good, he’s very very good.
Can McIlroy be the next big thing? It’s an awful lot to ask to expect him to have the kind of years Tiger had in his prime. Like the kind of year Woods had in 2000, when he won 9 tournaments, including 3 majors, may never happen again.
But at 22 years of age, McIlroy figures to have his best years ahead of him. Conventional wisdom suggests that most golfers reach their “prime” in their 30s. One thing appears certain – McIlroy is not just another face in the PGA Tour crowd.