NAPA, Calif. – Anyone who has declared this the start of the Jordan Era, or the J-Day Era, or the Big Three (or Four!) forgot one thing:
Everything can change in 52 weeks.
At this time last year, remember, Spieth had one PGA Tour win and a series of near-misses that left some doubt as to whether he could close out big events.
At this time last year, Day was the game’s greatest underachiever, a supremely talented but injury-riddled Aussie who had only two wins and mounting scar tissue.
At this time last year, Rickie Fowler, despite posting top-five finishes in all four majors, was still more style than substance, a player whom his peers would soon tab as the most overrated in golf.
And at this time last year … well, they were all looking up to Rory McIlroy.
He was on top of the world, with more than a three-point lead in the rankings. His closest pursuers weren’t Jordan, Jason or Rickie; they were Adam Scott, Jim Furyk and (yes) Sergio Garcia.
It wasn’t a question of whether McIlroy would hold onto the No. 1 spot. It was who, if anyone, could simply challenge him.
The answer, it turns out, was plenty of guys: Seven players accounted for 17 wins while ranked inside the OWGR top 10.
None made a bigger splash than Spieth and Day, who combined for three majors and 10 total wins, the first time since 1973 that multiple players won five or more events in the same season. Fowler also won the year’s most thrilling event, The Players, and added two more worldwide titles.
Left behind, in some sense, was McIlroy, a top-of-the-marquee name now relegated to a supporting role.
“The two guys that are at the top of the rankings are there deservedly,” he said Wednesday at the Frys.com Open, “because they played fantastically well over the last 12 months.”
By no means has McIlroy been a total slouch this year – he still has three worldwide wins, including a statement victory at the WGC-Match Play and a runaway win at Quail Hollow. But his season was torpedoed by the worst-timed kickabout in golf history.
The ensuing ankle injury, suffered July 4, cost him a St. Andrews Open in the prime of his career, a title defense at Firestone and a realistic shot at the PGA, because he was too rusty to keep pace with Day and Spieth.
Lackluster form in the playoffs did little to suggest that a torrid run was imminent, though he has four more events, including this week’s stop at Silverado, to salvage what has been a disappointing, frustrating and humbling year.
“I would say it was a good season; it wasn’t a great season,” he said. “I feel like I’m at a point in my career where a great season is defined by major championships.
“My major championship performances this year were solid, but not what I wanted them to be. So it was a lost year in the fact that I didn’t win a major and add to that tally.”
It stands to reason, then, that the 2015-16 PGA Tour season, which begins this week, is shaping up to be a massive year for the 26-year-old.
He was challenged like never before.
He lost his No. 1 ranking.
He suffered a careless injury that essentially ruined half of his season.
So if all of that doesn’t motivate Rory, it’s fair to wonder if anything will.
“That gives me motivation not because other guys are doing well, but just because of the position I’m in,” he said. “I want to start winning tournaments again, and seeing them win five times a year and winning majors, it’s something I feel I’ve done before and feel like I can do again.
“So there’s always motivation whether guys are doing well or not. I find myself in a position where I’m trying to get my game back to the level it needs to be.”
McIlroy might be No. 3 in the latest rankings, but he has the best chance to end the year on top simply because he has more opportunities. After the Frys – he saw Silverado for the first time Wednesday – he will tee it up at the Nov. 5-8 WGC-HSBC Champions before closing out his calendar year at the European Tour’s Turkish Airlines Open and DP World Tour Championship. He currently leads the circuit’s season-long Race to Dubai.
McIlroy reported that he’s happier with his game now than when he left Atlanta, following a T-16 at the Tour Championship. What has kept him out of contention is his putting, which will be a major point of emphasis during the offseason, especially since his short game has been compared unfavorably to wedge wizards like Spieth and Day.
“From now until forever,” he said, “it’s just trying to keep the strengths as strong as I can and chip away at the weaknesses. I sometimes feel like last season I neglected those weaknesses too much to focus on the strengths.”
That perfect storm – the negligence, the soccer injury and the remarkable play of his peers – was all it took to send McIlroy tumbling off the top rung. It likely won’t take 52 weeks for another dramatic shift.