Rory McIlroy's Rocky Stretch a Distant Memory as He Becomes Golf's Leading Man

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Rory McIlroy's Rocky Stretch a Distant Memory as He Becomes Golf's Leading Man
USA TODAY Sports
The doubters have disappeared over the last three weeks as Rory McIlory has gone on a tear.

Was it really only three weeks ago that so many of us doubted that Rory McIlroy was on the right path to major glory in the 2014 golf season?

Was it really only three weeks ago that it seemed every time McIlroy would put himself in contention at golf tournament, he would shoot himself right out of it by shooting himself in the foot with a second-round 77?

And what about the doubters who pointed to his 2013 struggles as proof that Nick Faldo was right when Faldo questioned McIlroy's switch after the 2012 season to Nike clubs, after McIlroy had used Titleist equipment his first five productive years as a pro?

Finally, Caroline Wozniacki...Rory hardly cut a sympathetic figure when he reportedly broke off their engagement over the phone. But the fact is that McIlroy has played much better since breaking it off with Wozniacki, a tennis superstar in her own right who took to Twitter afterward to lob some shots at her former beau. 

"They’ve both played great since they decided to go their separate ways, so maybe it’s been good for them,” said ESPN golf analyst Dottie Pepper (via ABCNews.com).

Let's stick strictly to McIlroy here, though, and examine the monumental change in the perception of his image that has occurred in a mere three-week span.

He was considered one of the favorites heading into the British Open at Royal Liverpool last month, but then he was considered one of the favorites heading into the U.S. Open before that and in the Masters before that. 

Something always prevented McIlroy from proving the oddsmakers correct—at least until his own father, Gerry, could cash in on a winning ticket that was years in the making.

Gerry McIlroy and three of his buddies plunked down 100 pounds each when Rory was just 15 years old, betting that Gerry's boy would win the British Open before the age of 25 (they each raked in about $85,400 when Rory did it just under the wire by winning at Royal Liverpool).

Usually, it was Rory who stopped himself just short of raking in the kind of glory that until now has been doled out so sparingly in golf that it could be argued only two before him have previously stood on this precipice of lifetime superstardom. Their names are Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

As McIlroy prepares for this week's PGA Championship at Valhalla, where he is favored to win yet again, he stands with Tiger and Jack as the only players in the history of the game to win three major championships before the age of 25.

His drives are booming and true. His approach shots into greens are like darts drawn to a bull's-eye. And his once-balky putter now seems trustworthy again.

Talking with reporters at Valhalla Golf Club on Tuesday, McIlroy credited his amazing turnaround to a sharpened mental approach to the game.

 McIlroy told the media, via Reuters:

I said at the start of the year that golf was looking for someone to put their hand up and sort of become one of the dominant players in the game. I felt like I had the ability to do that. It's just nice to be able to win a few tournaments and get back to where I feel like I should be, which is near the top of the world rankings, competing in majors and winning golf tournaments.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when uttering McIlroy's name in the same breath as Woods and Nicklaus, based on Rory's young age and seemingly limitless potential, was not the total reach that it seemed to have become earlier this year. 

McIlroy won his first major in 2011 at age 22 when he ran away with the U.S. Open, shooting a record 16-under-par to win by eight strokes. His second major came a year later when he captured the PGA Championship—again by the whopping margin of eight strokes—at Kiawah Island.

Then, to many, McIlroy did the unthinkable.

Nike showed him the money, and he took it, abandoning the Titlelist clubs that had helped him earn his first two major championships, eight tournament titles in all between Europe and the PGA Tour, more than 15 million pounds on the European Tour and another $13 million-plus in America.

No wonder Faldo called the equipment switch "dangerous" and accused McIlroy basically of selling out at the possible expense of costing himself a greater legacy in the game.

Faldo told The Telegraph then:

The bottom line is he’s doing it for money. When he looks at a 20-year career it’s not necessary. If he carries on and wins more majors he’ll be worth hundreds of millions anyway.

Sure, this is a wonderful guarantee but Rory knows the biggest thing is winning golf tournaments. If he believes that’s still going to happen, fine. But if it holds him back for a split second in his mind then you will question it.

It appeared to hold McIlroy back more than a mere split second, as he struggled through most of 2013 (he failed to win a single tournament and earned roughly $6.2 million less on the PGA Tour than he had a year earlier).

Then he began this season by exhibiting the strange habit of having one blow-up round almost every tournament when it seemed he might be turning the corner—a second-round 77 at the Masters; a second-round 76 after opening with a 69 at the Wells Fargo Championship; an inexplicable second-round 78 after opening with a sizzling 63 at The Memorial; a 74 in the third round of the U.S. Open.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Add in the very public breakup with Wozniacki and McIlroy's image—not to mention his golf game—seemed to be in disarray.

That all changed dramatically just three weeks ago.

Not only did McIlroy win the British Open, but then he immediately backed it up by capturing the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational to reclaim the world's No. 1 ranking.

In retrospect, no one should have doubted that Nike would continue to work tirelessly with McIlroy until both parties made sure his game was right. They have too much invested in each other (some estimates have placed Rory's Nike deal at $200 million or more over 10 years, others at more like $100 million).

After missing the cut in the Irish Open in July of last year, for instance, McIlroy stayed behind in Ireland and met with Nike representatives to "continue searching for the perfect driver and putter," according to the DailyMail.co.uk.

Now he's the world No. 1 again. And with Tiger Woods' back injury flaring up again, McIlroy clearly is golf's leading man heading into the final major championship of the year even if Woods is able to play.

Does anyone doubt McIlroy can win again this weekend at Valhalla? And does anyone remember the doubts that were swirling all about him just three weeks ago?

They seem distant now and quite silly.

 

Joe Menzer has written six books and now writes about golf and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.

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