For months Rory McIlroy had to deal with his critics, and for months, they were winning.
It was their time to take down the once-upon-a-time golden boy. A major championship in his pocket at the age of 22 notwithstanding, McIlroy had little ammunition to squelch the naysayers. Just a year after his masterpiece at Congressional, the 23-year-old was mired in an artistic slump, missing four cuts in five events and generally appearing lost on the course. At the BMW PGA Championship in May, McIlroy was especially out of sorts, posting dismal rounds of 74 and 79—good enough to beat all of 15 golfers in the 150-man field.
Whether it was spending too much time with his girlfriend, getting out to the practice range too seldom or getting eaten up by the new lifestyle that comes along with celebrity, critics always seemed to have an opening to make McIlroy their personal punching bag.
Certainly an average man would fold under the repeated rounds of blows, but if romping to a major championship victory months after imploding in his first great attempt is any indication, McIlroy is anything but that.
And proof came once again in spectacular fashion, as, on a beautiful Sunday at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course, McIlroy made sure nobody would catch him.
The 23-year-old first completed his third round in the morning and moved into a three-shot lead with a seemingly simple 67 that could've actually been lower if not for three missed putts inside five feet and a ball getting stuck in a tree.
He would continue to progress over the closing 18.
Donning a red shirt, McIlroy birdied three of his first seven to move 10 under par, and even with a hard-charging Ian Poulter, who moved within two after pouring in eight birdies (against just one bogey) in his first 12 holes, he never flinched.
Poulter soon did, and McIlroy never looked back, knocking off three more strokes to par on the closing nine and cruising to his second eight-shot victory in a major championship in as many years.
It was a soul-satisfying victory for the Northern Irishman who had experienced much frustration in recent months.
However, frustration and elation often go hand-in-hand in golf, and McIlroy felt the latter this past Sunday. In a mode of play that only one other man in a red shirt has been able to produce in recent years, the Northern Irishman wasn't going to be denied his grand prize.
There were prodigious drives that made David Feherty appear a dumb-founded spectator, remarkable recoveries that made danger appear harmless and perfectly-struck putts that made the hole appear three-feet wide.
The putter cooperated magnificently when he needed it early on, and even after he built his cushion, McIlroy drained every putt with such interest that one could be forgiven to think his advantage was hanging precariously by a thread (sound familiar?).
With the field thoroughly whipped and fighting for second place (also sound familiar?), and the likes of Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh outgunned by 13 and 18 strokes respectively over the final 36 holes, there was only one response left to McIlroy's detractors: Any questions?
Indeed, McIlroy now has two major championship victories to his name, an accomplishment he has achieved at a younger age than Tiger.
Both of his victories have been done in dominating fashion, and at the PGA he set the record for highest margin of victory in the tournament's almost century-long history.
McIlroy is once again ranked No. 1 in the world, reaching that milestone while tending to a tennis-star girlfriend, avoiding all of the trappings of instant celebrity and trying to stay cool under the searing heat that a less-than-benevolent press puts on him.
So, with all of that in the books before the age of 24, what else does McIlroy have to prove?
The answer: plenty.
Yes, there is no doubt McIlroy looked the part of a world-beater in stomping on his fellow competitors at the PGA, but even in their brightest moments, the biggest stars can still take note of their flaws.
After all, that's how they climb to an even higher level—just ask Tiger Woods, who retooled his swing after his stunning 12-shot romp at the Masters in 1997. The dividends weren't immediate, but when they came, Tiger conquered the game like maybe no one else in history, winning 27 PGA Tour tournaments in a four-year stretch, including seven majors in 11 attempts.
McIlroy has shown that, like Tiger, he can wipe out fields without a second thought of the devastation left behind. When McIlroy gets the lead, like Tiger, he has the rare ability not to think about how to hold on, but how to make it grow.
Therefore, at his peak, McIlroy may almost be Tiger's equal (almost since it's doubtful he'll ever match Tiger's performance at the 2000 U.S. Open), but that is where the similarities stop.
While everyone struggles at times in this game, McIlroy has produced quite a large number of valleys to go with those few peaks, and they are quite low for a player of his caliber.
So, in part due to his youth, McIlroy's game is clearly lacking in an element essential to remaining the top player in the game: consistency.
While it may have been forgotten after his eventful summer, McIlroy was actually displaying a penchant for high finishes in the preceding number of months. From August of 2011 to May of 2012, McIlroy competed in 12 events and finished in the top 11 all but one time.
It was quite a convincing streak, but it soon faded when his game went very south, a stunning turnaround that indicated inconsistency was still McIlroy's norm.
Along with the troubles erratic play can bring to a player looking to be No. 1, McIlroy has also struggled most where Tiger thrived the best, winning in tight situations.
As terrific as extending big leads are, holding on for a close victory is much more useful. Even for the best, four-, six- and eight-shot cushions are exceedingly rare, and the ability to win by one or two is the biggest tool needed to be great.
In fact, of Tiger's 74 PGA Tour victories, 42 have come by two strokes or less, as have five of his 14 major wins. For Jack Nicklaus, it is even more startling: 44 of his 73 wins were by that two-or-less margin, as were 12 of his 18 major titles.
Those who have stamped their mark as the undoubted best in the game for a period of time have this ability to pull through when title hopes are so precarious.
McIlroy, on the other hand, has not quite conquered this ability yet. In his young career, the 23-year-old has produced six total wins, a decent number until one notices he has finished second or third a combined 20 times. In fact, of the aforementioned streak, seven of those finishes are top-threes, yet just one is a victory.
That one victory, at this year's Honda Classic, is really the only one where McIlroy showed the killer instinct necessary to close out a tight contest. There, after Tiger eagled 18 to get within one, McIlroy calmly rolled in a 10-footer to get back up two, then made three fantastic par saves in the next four holes to seal a two-shot win.
It was a good sign, but McIlroy has since backed it up with a loss in a playoff due to a fanned wedge and a squandering of a two-shot lead with seven holes to go, due to two bogeys and a double bogey at the last after duck-hooking his tee shot in a pond.
It's been a highly unusual 2012 for McIlroy, and until his PGA Championship victory, it had been a disappointing year. Expected to take the reins as the game's best player after securing his first major at Congressional, McIlroy wasn't fully up to the task.
Almost 60 weeks after that victory, he's only had passing glances at the No. 1 world golf ranking, never holding it for more than a brief moment.
His on-course press has been about missed opportunities and poor showings, rather than victories.
Fans and analysts alike will not be afraid to hype up the expectations after this week's performance, but is Rory really up to the task of becoming the dominant force in the game?
He looked unflappable at Kiawah, and wore that Sunday red just like the Tiger of old, but there is still a lot of room for young McIlroy to grow.
At times, he can dominate like few others in the game's modern history, but until he shows more consistency and a more than occasional killer instinct in the clutch, McIlroy will flop short of expectations.
Padraig Harrington, for one, is convinced that with McIlroy around, Jack Nicklaus' majors record isn't safe.
But before one can even think that McIlroy can approach the game's most sacred record, he must first prove he can be the game's preeminent player.
He clearly has the highest upside of the young golfing prospects, but until he can bring in that into actuality for more than a week, he won't take the next step to greatness.
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