April 2011 seems a long, long time ago. Leading by four shots heading into the final round of the Masters, the prodigal son Rory McIlroy was widely expected to win his first major title at a canter.
What transpired instead was one of golf’s – even sport’s – greatest capitulations. A swing that for three days had looked faultless suddenly disintegrated in spectacular fashion. “Fore left” after every tee shot replaced the staple shout of “Get in the hole”.
As things went from bad to worse and ever deeper into the pits of despair, McIlroy’s round of 80 was heart-breaking. Seeing the baby-faced Ulsterman stand on the tenth tee hunched over his driver, head in his hands and teary-eyed, was to see a boy’s dream snatched away from him. As his ball landed in Ray’s Creek McIlroy looked broken. Broken beyond repair.
Golf’s greatest hope was consigned to the murky dungeons of unfulfilled potential. The hope that McIlroy would rule the game like his divine predecessors Nicklaus, Palmer and Woods was slowly drowning in Ray’s Creek along with that wretched golf ball.
Fast-forward three years and the god-like figure bestriding the fairways of Valhalla is unrecognisable from the boy cowed into despair by the golfing royalty of Augusta.
McIlroy gave off an aura of invincibility, ruthlessness and most importantly inevitability during his final round at the USPGA. Starting with his eagle at the par-five tenth, McIlroy began a drive towards victory that even the Nordic gods whose shadows lurk in the backwaters of Valhalla could not stop.
It’s true his driving has become one of the most vital assets to his game. His length and accuracy off the tee give him a spectacular advantage over his more human competitors. When hitting his long irons his ability is such that it looks as if he’s throwing darts around the flag. A modified putting stroke this year has given him a magic touch on the greens. There are no superlatives that can do the quality of his golf justice.
That said it is not only supreme golf that has been behind McIlroy’s record-breaking year thus far. It is far deeper, far more abstract and far more psychological than that. His superiority is identifiable through numbers and statistics but they do not tell the whole story. They can explain wins, but not four consecutive wins – the PGA Championship, the Open, the World Golf Championship at Firestone and the USPGA – of such magnitude.
For such an explanation we must harp back into a time when Tiger Woods (remember him, heh?) was at his peak. His golfing prowess was unquestionable but the aura he gave off was his best weapon. It was such that when he led a tournament through 54-holes he never lost. Up until 2009 this record remained intact and it was instrumental in breaking the proverbial spine of his opponents.
His on-course demeanour was one of unquestionable authority and superiority. He gave the impression that everything was his to win; only his generosity could you see claim victory. He owned the golf course.
Since his victory at the PGA Championship at Wentworth McIlroy has developed that very same aura. The expectation now is for him to win. Rickie Folwer and Phil Mickelson may do all they can to challenge McIlroy and deny the existence of such an aura but it is there to see.
Where once McIlroy walked with an arrogant strut he now strides confidently, assuredly and determined. Having recovered from his Master’s breakdown, his self-belief is unwavering. He knows he is the best player on the golf course and he makes sure everyone else knows it as well.
The fact his first three major wins all came as he led from the front have not just put to bed the doubts about his mental toughness and resilience. They have been given potent sleeping pills and sedated with Valyrian steel straps. They are down for good.
Thus, once McIlroy gets his nose in front there is no catching him. The only question was whether he could chase, and that was well and truly answered on Sunday after being three shots behind at one point.
As it stands, there are no questions surrounding neither the technicalities of McIlroy’s golf nor his mental strength. He is the complete package. The possibilities, therefore, are endless. Having harnessed his golfing ability he added to it the aura of invincibility. An aura that can count for numerous strokes on a golf course.
In other sports certain players and teams have carried such an aura and the effects are tantalising. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were expected to win; games at Old Trafford were over before the whistle had been blown thanks to the hostile atmosphere in the ground. Lesser teams were scarred.
The All Blacks’ tale is a similar one. Despite England raising their game in the summer tests they still could not achieve victory. The New Zealanders were battered and bruised but nevertheless found a way to win. They had a habit of winning and that is hard to get out of.
Usain Bolt, Shane Warne, Rafael Nadal – on clay courts – and Michael Phelps are in the same category. Sportsmen so driven and skilled that opponents feel obligated to lose. Over time it becomes their divine right to win. Such auras are hard to create but even harder to destroy. All the aforemention athletes spent their whole career at the top of their respective sports and that is in no small part down to the mental edge they possess. Knowing you are superior is far more effective than believing it.
It may not be too early to add McIlroy’s name to that list. He is here to stay.
A certain fictional queen once stated that “in the game of thrones you either win or you die,” and post-Masters meltdown many expected McIlroy to die a slow and painful death in the world of golf. Instead, he is sitting pretty atop the World Rankings gazing down sympathetically upon all pretenders helplessly launching coup after coup to dethrone him.
The previous king’s record of 18 major championships is in serious danger. Barring another serious breakup, a car-crash into a fire hydrant or affairs with waitresses, McIlroy could well sit upon his throne for years to come.
This is a game he has well and truly won.