The man sitting in front of the microphone was despondent.
Visibly shaken and uncharacteristically short on words, Rory McIlroy explained to a packed interview room at the BMW PGA Championship on May 21 that he and fiancée Caroline Wozniacki had mutually parted ways. At the time, he was outside the top 10 in the world, mired in a bizarre slump seemingly isolated to Fridays and about to face a course on which he had often struggled.
Five days later, he left with the trophy.
McIlroy had a career year in 2014, so it’s easy to forget that nearly halfway through the calendar, the bottom fell out. Following an engagement on New Year’s Eve, he and his tennis belle were soon to be wed – invitations were already in the mail.
Suddenly, it was all off. A hurried statement was released, one that spoke of an amicable split that did little to quell the speculation. One of the most high-profile courtships in sports, “Wozzilroy” was gone in the middle of the night, like the Mayflower truck that carried the Colts out of Baltimore.
“Obviously quite a difficult time for Caroline and myself,” McIlroy said in that news conference at Wentworth. “Time to move on, and I think I’ve said all that I need to say.”
On the surface, the timing for McIlroy could not have been worse. The announcement came with the heart of the golf season about to kick off, and the Ulsterman had already endured a disappointing spring. His game had showed flashes, but second-round struggles continued to derail his title aspirations: first at Augusta National, then at Quail Hollow and again at TPC Sawgrass.
He appeared in command at the Honda Classic, but instead surrendered his lead down the stretch and lost in a playoff. When the announcement of his breakup was made, 20 months had passed since his last PGA Tour victory.
The breakup also came on the eve of the European Tour’s flagship event, held on a course that often got the better of McIlroy. He missed the cut by a wide margin in 2013, and hadn’t cracked the top 20 since 2010.
All signs, both personal and professional, pointed to a week of struggle. Instead, McIlroy authored one of the best final-round comebacks of the year, erasing a seven-shot deficit to Thomas Bjorn to capture the title by one shot after a closing 66.
What appeared on Wednesday to be a season-defining week for all the wrong reasons turned into a catalyst that helped launch McIlroy into the golfing stratosphere. He would cruise to victory at Royal Liverpool less than two months later, add a second PGA Championship and finish the year atop the money list on both the PGA Tour and the European Tour.
As the year draws to a close, McIlroy is the undisputed best player in the world, and it’s almost difficult to recall a time this year when that wasn’t the case. But such a time certainly did exist, and as a sullen McIlroy sat at that podium in May it seemed logical that the wheels might soon fall off, that even a player as talented as McIlroy would succumb to the added pressure, attention and distraction created by his highly publicized breakup.
Instead, with his tide at its lowest point, the 25-year-old found a way to right the ship.
The Summer of Rory didn’t begin at Hoylake. It began at Wentworth, where in the span of five days he went from the lonely hearts’ club to the winner’s circle. It was an improbable turnaround, and served as one of the standout moments of the year.