September 2013. To the rest of the world, Rory McIlroy’s meteoric rise has stalled, and stalled badly.
Having won two majors by the age of 23, and seemingly with the world at his feet, McIlroy was suddenly down with the journeymen – he was capable of making cuts but registered just one top-three finish all season.
He had begun the year as world number one, but a string of mediocre results had seen him slip out of the top five (in purely ranking terms, it was to get worse – by April this year he was number 11, his lowest since 2010). Rory McIlroy, blessed with one of the purest swings the game has ever seen, was playing ordinary golf.
And golf fans the world over were immediately able to diagnose his problem – or, at least, so they thought. At the start of the year, McIlroy had signed one of the most lucrative endorsement deals in the history of sport to exclusively use Nike equipment.
Received wisdom decreed that the gear was inferior – and that, in any case, a player needs significant time to get used to new clubs and balls.
He was also involved in a very public relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, and faced criticism that he was neglecting his game. In short, they said, Rory McIlroy had betrayed his talent for millions of dollars and a pretty girl.
That received wisdom could not have been further from the truth.
Almost 12 months ago, unbeknown to the rest of the world, the Ulsterman was working harder than ever at his game, desperate to get to grips with his new clubs. And then it happened. A breakthrough.
“Suddenly, there was a big turning point in the whole process,” McIlroy told Sport in an exclusive interview to be featured in full next month, ahead of the Ryder Cup. “I got a driver and a ball that I knew I could use. It was one of those eureka moments.”
The 25-year-old may have a reputation as someone who enjoys himself off the course – it is likely that this year was the first time the Open Championship Claret Jug had been filled with Jagermeister, for instance – but there can be no doubting his drive or commitment.
“Once I got that driver I worked really hard last autumn,” he continues. “I went to Asia and played really well, and that culminated in winning in Australia at the end of the year. That was when I knew I had come out the other side.
“I didn’t want to rest at the end of the year. I got straight back out practising and it felt like it was back.”
By May of this year, McIlroy was back in the winner’s circle at the European Tour’s flagship tournament, the BMW PGA Championship. That was soon followed by a pillar-to-post victory in the Open Championship, and within weeks the WGC-Bridgestone event at Firestone and yet another Major, the PGA Championship, were added to the tally. From ordinary to world-beater in a matter of months.
Sky Sports analyst Ewen Murray was especially impressed that McIlroy resisted the temptation to do anything other than work at his game when doubts started to creep in. There were no knee-jerk reactions.
“I like the way that, when things weren’t going well, he didn’t look for a quick fix,” Murray told Sport. “People told himto change his coach, but he’s been with Michael Bannon since he was about six, and he is a friend. They told him to change his caddie, but he’s been with JP [Fitzgerald] for years – and he is a friend too. That showed a lot of maturity.”
Indeed, McIlroy was able to identify his problem quickly. Having thought he would be able to switch equipment seamlessly (he previously used Titleist clubs and balls), he admits to being “a little naive”.
“Yeah, it took a while to feel comfortable with the changes,” he says. “I didn’t think it would, but that was maybe me being a little naive and thinking I could play with anything. I thought it might take six months at the outside, which in a 25-year career is not too bad. A lot of guys maybe change one thing at a time – but I was like, you know what, let’s change everything. But I had a lot of trust in the guys I was working with and confidence in the equipment. Now, everyone can see the results.”
Murray suspects the results would have come quicker, had others not put doubts in the Ulsterman’s mind. “I’m with Rory on this; I think with his swing he could hit anything,” he says. “But there were a few foolish things said, by people who should know better, about his clubs. People forget Jack Nicklaus had three different sets of clubs – one for the US, one for Europe and one for Australia. Rory is so good he could use anything, but the negative chat probably put doubts in his mind. At the end of the day it’s about the Indian, not the arrows.”
So what happened? What part of McIlroy’s game has transformed so dramatically that he has won two Majors in succession? Murray is in no doubt: “His driving in recent weeks is the best exhibition I have ever seen. He drove it very well at the Scottish Open – although he had one bad round – then carried that form to Hoylake, but at the Bridgestone he was astonishing. It’s a tight course, and even tighter at the distances he was hitting it. It’s pinched in at 310 yards, but he was carrying that. It was incredible.
“And then he took that to the PGA. The course was rain-softened, true, but I’ve never seen driving of that class, sustained over a period of tournaments. Tiger was never the greatest driver and I don’t think anyone – Nicklaus, Palmer, Player – has hit the ball this well off the tee before.”
Indeed, Dan Jenkins, 84-year-old doyen of American golf journalists, was moved to tweet during the PGA Championship: “I’ve seen four great golf swings in my day: Snead, Hogan, Littler and Rory.”
But there is also a swagger about McIlroy now. He is the player the others fear whenever he is near the top of the leaderboard. He can win from the front, and always with a trick up his sleeve should his rivals dare to get too close. At the Open it was two eagles in his closing three holes on Saturday – while at the PGA, having dropped to fourth with nine to play on the Sunday, he eagled the 10th (despite claiming his second shot was a mishit).
“Other players are fearful of him when he’s near the top of the leaderboard because of the way he plays,” expands Murray. “He takes courses on, and the manner in which he wins is so impressive. He doesn’t fear any course or player, and he has always been the same. He has not changed, and that is testament to the way he was brought up.
“That eagle in the PGA, even if he did get a bit of a break, was the turning point. From there on in, there was only going to be one winner. He understands his swing, and it stands up to pressure. He knows what he needs to do. It was a very impressive win.”
McIlroy’s mental strength is equally impressive. He has always maintained that his game is not as well suited to links courses, and has previously looked uncomfortable at Open Championships. But his win at Hoylake was superb.
“A good year for him now requires a major championship,” says Murray. “He can win at any course, and winning the Open was huge for him. At the back of his mind, I think there was a doubt about links courses. But winning the Open has got rid of that.
“There are no weaknesses in his game right now. There will be hard times again at some stage, because everyone in golf has them. But if he deals with them in the same way he has come through the last 18 months, he will be very hard for anyone to beat.”
After his PGA Championship victory, McIlroy’s earning potential was estimated at $83m a year. Golf was looking for the next Tiger Woods. It needs look no further.