Yet since the former world No. 1 has been swinging The Swoosh, it’s been a whole lot more of “Done Blown It” in 2013.
Since winning the 2012 PGA Championship last August, McIlroy’s fast rise to the position of top golfer in the world has been grounded by struggles with his new clubs, confidence issues, inconsistent performances and an overall malaise, making him more afterthought than favorite as the 2013 campaign has meandered on.
In the time since, he has walked off the course mid-competition, destroyed a club when things were going badly and posted back-to-back weak finishes in 2013 majors.
Those struggles and Rory’s steep decline have many wondering exactly what has gone wrong for McIlroy and just how long it’s going to take the 24-year-old to figure it all out.
Essentially from the day he signed on to join Tiger Woods as one of the two top faces of Nike’s golf brand, it’s been a downward spiral for McIlroy, riddled with disappointment after disappointment.
Now, with the Open Championship at Muirfield just a couple of weeks away, the slump has gone on longer than anyone expected it would, and it threatens the once lofty position the game’s most promising player previously held.
McIlroy Signs with Nike
As a Titleist star, McIlroy won two majors and six PGA Tour titles, including four during an amazing 2012 season. Despite that success, McIlroy had about $200 million reasons to switch to Nike this past January.
It was expected there might be a slow transition period for the 2011 U.S. Open champion, but no one expected what would come in the six months since he officially joined the Phil Knight family.
In his 10 events on tour this year, McIlroy has compiled four top 10s, but only once has he actually been a threat to win an event—which is the standard he is most certainly held to these days.
McIlroy Misses Abu Dhabi Cut
The foreshadowing of those struggles came in McIlroy’s first competitive match with the new clubs at the HSBC Championship at Abu Dhabi in mid-January.
Fresh off the announcement of his Nike marriage, McIlroy promptly went out and missed the cut with back-to-back 75s.
During both rounds, McIlroy uncharacteristically struggled with his accuracy, missing fairways and greens—often by a significant amount. Forget about a honeymoon. With that poor performance, the questions had already begun just 36 holes in with the new sticks.
McIlroy Embarrassed at WGC World Match Play Championship
If his performance at Abu Dhabi could be explained away as rust and a transition period, there was little by the way of explanation for McIlroy’s stunning first-round loss at the snow-delayed WGC Match Play Championship in Arizona a couple of weeks later.
Still the world’s top-ranked golfer at the time, McIlroy lost to relative unknown Shane Lowry on the same day Tiger also suffered an early exit. While McIlroy had the fame, it was Lowry who had the game, chipping in twice in a tight match on the back nine and then holding on down the stretch to pull off the upset.
First-round shockers in the match play event are nothing new, and McIlroy can’t do much to prevent a previously unknown golfer from having a career day on the links.
Yet that loss coupled with the poor showing at the HSBC Championship sent the Irishman to the Florida swing with a temperamental game and in a foul mood.
McIlroy Walks off PGA National
Unfortunately for McIlroy, a return to Florida didn't do much to help his game or his mood, and it showed in the worst possible way during the second round of the Honda Classic at PGA National in early March.
His game in absolute disrepair and his confidence equally shattered, McIlroy walked off the course midway through the Friday round, claiming a toothache.
Considering Rory was seven over through eight holes and had just found the water on the ninth before walking off, no one was buying that excuse, and McIlroy knew it.
"I think it was a buildup of everything," McIlroy said, as reported by NOLA.com, the following week at the Cadillac Championship. "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. That's just been the frustrating thing, and that's what happened.
"I just sort of let it all get to me."
Not long after, Woods, who would win his second event of the year a week later at the WGC Cadillac Championship, took the World No. 1 ranking from McIlroy, adding insult to injury in a rough start to a PGA Tour season that was supposed to build his resume, not threaten to impair it.
McIlroy's Struggles Continue at Augusta National
That resume hasn't improved at all through the first two majors of the season.
In fact, the 2013 Masters was a microcosm of McIlroy’s struggles. The world’s second-ranked player started well at Augusta National in early April. He played the first two rounds in two under and was absolutely in the mix for his first green jacket.
Then came a head-scratching third-round 79, and McIlroy went from contender to outcast in just 18 holes.
Less than 24 hours later, the Irishman was 10 shots better, finishing with a 69 on Sunday that absolutely begs the question of how such a talented two-time major champion can be so good one day and so bad another.
It’s a tale that has been told several times before and since the Masters.
In fact, three weeks after Augusta, McIlroy posted an opening-round five-under 67 in the Wells Fargo Championship only to stagnate from there.
The following week, it was the same story at The Players Championship, where Rory jumped out with an opening-round 66 but was never a factor over the weekend.
More than the Honda early exit or the confidence issues, it's inconsistency that has been so aggravating for McIlroy.
Given his number of top 10s this year and his second-place finish at the Valero Texas Open, it’s evident the 2012 style is somewhere inside Rory. But there has been at least one round in many events this year in which things unraveled to the point of no return.
Merion Golf Club—Frustration Bends Out
The frustration that has been his poor 2013 season and the inconsistency of his play boiled over yet again in the final round of the 2013 U.S. Open at the challenging Merion Golf Club a couple of weeks ago.
Playing out the string of a disappointing Open performance, McIlroy hit an approach shot on the 11th hole into the water and then leaned so heavily on his nine iron in anger that he bent it significantly.
McIlroy would go on to make a quadruple-bogey eight on the hole en route to his 41st-place finish at 14 over.
But more important than another poor finish in a major or the damage to his Nike club are the continued chinks in the armor those moments have shown. McIlroy continues to play poorly, and the evidence of the toll it’s taken on his psyche is mounting.
Two days ago, Rory missed the cut in the Irish Open, his tuneup for the British Open at Muirfield, leaving one to wonder if the McIlroy misery has an end in sight.
The talent he showed in the two years prior to the 2013 campaign says yes. His poor form in the first six months of this season and his confidence issues absolutely scream no.
"It's fine, I just need to work on my game, keep doing the right things out there, keep putting the work in," McIlroy said, per Paul Higham of Sky Sports. "And if I can do that, then it should turn around at some point, whether that's in a couple of weeks or further down the line we'll see."
The next challenge is only a couple of weeks away, and yet another judgment will be cast on the current state of Rory’s game when The Open Championship concludes.
Considering what we've seen in recent months, there’s unfortunately little reason to expect much in what is left of the 2013 campaign despite so much having been promised when it began.
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