HOYLAKE, England – The peaks and valleys have been as predictable as the incoming tide off the Dee Estuary.
In short form, Rory McIlroy’s career has been defined by periods of unmitigated brilliance followed by inexplicable bouts of inconsistent, perhaps even indifferent, play.
He’s won majors by multiple strokes. He’s gone more than 12 months between victories and missed cuts like a journeyman trying to keep his PGA Tour card.
He’s climbed to No. 1 in the World Golf Ranking. He’s quietly faded outside the top 10.
He’s been hailed as the game’s next commander-in-chief. He’s failed to contend in nine major starts since boat-racing the field at the 2012 PGA Championship.
He’s looked unbeatable. He’s looked beaten.
Through four rounds and almost as many seasons at Hoylake last week, it was the former who overpowered Royal Liverpool with an all-to-familiar driving display to move within a green jacket of the career Grand Slam.
On Sunday night in the glow of another signature performance it was all smiles, even when he was asked about those systematic swoons.
“This time last year,” he shrugged sheepishly when asked the moment he hit rock bottom in his most recent slump.
When he missed the cut last July at Muirfield it was his second consecutive 36-hole week and his third in five starts, a run that was highlighted by a pedestrian tie for 41st at the U.S. Open.
This was not the guy who had been given the keys to the golf world following his first two major triumphs, which he won by a combined 16 strokes. This was the other guy.
“I've always said, whenever you play this well, you always wonder how you've played so badly before. And whenever you've play so badly, you always wonder how you play so well,” McIlroy said on the eve of Sunday’s final round. “Golf is a very fickle game.”
Yet while the 25-year-old can easily identify the ebb and flow of his competitive clock he has been unable to sidestep the potential pitfalls.
After winning the 2011 U.S. Open in dominant fashion at Congressional he failed to contend in the next two majors and raised eyebrows on this side of the Atlantic Ocean when he closed with weekend rounds of 74-73 in difficult conditions at Royal St. George’s to tie for 25th place.
“My game is suited for basically every golf course and most conditions, but these conditions I just don't enjoy playing in really,” he said. “That's the bottom line. I'd rather play when it's 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind.”
Less than eight months later he found himself mired in the first bona fide slump of his professional career midway through the 2012 season – a run that included four missed cuts in five events and another poor showing (T-60) at the Open Championship.
It was a pep talk from his putting coach Dave Stockton Sr. at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational that wrenched him from that abyss and on to his second major triumph, another eight-shot walk-off at the PGA Championship.
But that bookend Grand Slam only begat a second slump, a swoon that extended almost the entire 2013 calendar and included four missed cuts and a season that ended before the Tour Championship.
He began to turn the tide with an 11th-hour victory at the Australian Open in December, rallied to win the BMW PGA Championship on the European Tour in May and went wire-to-wire at Hoylake to complete his most recent comeback.
“It’s just one of those things. When we get Rory at a certain level he doesn’t vary too far off the mark,” said McIlroy’s swing coach Michael Bannon. “Last year was a little bit of an aberration and we’re back again.”
It wasn’t always this way. Until slipping into his post-2011 U.S. Open abyss the game had always come easy to the Northern Irishman.
“He pretty much cleaned up as an amateur in Ireland,” said Paul Gray, the former club professional turned general manager at McIlroy’s childhood club in Northern Ireland. “He can be streaky now and possibly the off-course stuff has affected him in recent years.”
There has been plenty of off-course stuff.
Since turning professional McIlroy has endured all number of growing pains, a hectic jump from management firm to management firm, multiple lawsuits and a painfully public split with fiancée Caroline Wozniacki earlier this year.
Many of these missteps were self-inflicted, like his high-profile jump to Nike Golf last year, but the extremes of his young career may end up becoming the status quo.
As unrealistic as the comparisons to Tiger Woods may have been, McIlroy’s career seems more comparable to this generation’s other star.
“The way he plays is pretty aggressively. When he gets it going, he gets it going. When it gets going bad, it gets going real bad. It's one or the other,” Woods said on Sunday at Hoylake. “If you look at his results, he's kind of that way. Very similar to what Phil does. He has his hot weeks and he has his weeks where he's off. And that's just the nature of how he plays the game. It's no right way or wrong way. But it's just the nature of how he plays.”
Throughout all of the highs and lows, however, McIlroy’s most endearing quality has been his inability to delude himself. For a player who demands the best out of his game, when things have gotten sideways he has embraced his shortcomings with an unapologetic zeal.
This lack of any filter is the byproduct of a firm grasp on reality that transcends his 25 years.
After winning the U.S. Open at Congressional he was the first to dismiss any talk of catching Jack Nicklaus – figuring, at the time, the last 17 majors are always the hardest.
Conversely, through the bad times he’s been encouraged by the reality that periodic droughts between major victories every other year or so would eventually add up to an amazingly prolific career and that his game, while not exactly bulletproof, was built for the long haul.
“I never had doubts. All I had to do was look back at some of the great tournaments that I played. The ability was still there. It was just trying to find a way to make it come out again,” McIlroy said on Sunday as he eyed the claret jug. “It's been huge what a difference a year makes.”
What waits over the next 12 months is anyone’s guess, but this much is certain – with McIlroy it is sure to be entertaining.