KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Most observers called it a childish decision from a golfer just barely removed from being a child.
This was the opening round of last year’s PGA Championship and young Rory McIlroy, just two months after winning the U.S. Open, was faced with a shot on the third hole of Atlanta Athletic Club from the root of a tree.
It was the type of shot that defines what kind of player a guy is.
No, more than that. It was the type of shot that defines what kind of person he is.
Punch the ball carefully back into the fairway and he’s the type of person who plans ahead, who considers the future, who plays it safe in hopes of greater returns later.
Take a mighty lash toward the green and he’s the type of person who lives in the moment, who throws caution to the wind, who tries to play hero in the face of danger.
Rory McIlroy took a mighty lash. He is that type of person.
Forget that he barely advanced the ball from that tree root. Forget that he carded a bogey on the hole. Even forget that he strained tendons in his right forearm that hampered his performance for the remainder of that week and a few subsequent tournaments, as well.
It may not have been the proper decision, but it taught us plenty about him as a player and a person.
That story is relevant exactly one year later, as McIlroy owns a share of the lead at the very same tournament halfway through his third round.
If we’ve learned anything while watching the 23-year-old in the last two editions of this event, it’s that hubris can get a man nowhere or everywhere.
Just as his aggressive nature at last year’s PGA sealed his fate with 69½ more holes to play, that same innate characteristic has helped him vault up the leaderboard here at the Ocean Course. Finishing nine holes before the rain came on Saturday, he posted five birdies and moved past some superstar fellow competitors to grab a share of the lead with Vijay Singh at 6 under.
“Look, when you're an aggressive player, you're going to have days where it doesn't go so well and then you're also going to have days like this,” McIlroy explained. “I'm just happy that a day like that came today.”
Whereas some of the other contenders struggled to play with such boldness on an opening stretch of holes that was yielding some lower scores – including, ahem, a certain 14-time major champion – McIlroy stepped on the gas pedal and never looked back.
He made birdies on Nos. 1, 2, 5, 7 and 8, taking sole possession of the tournament lead for the first time before his first setback with a bogey on the ninth.
“Today the pins were a little friendlier, so you could take a few chances here or there and go for them,” he said. “My short game saved me a little bit, too, on the front nine. I had a couple of great up-and-downs for pars to keep the good start going. I hit a couple of great iron shots into the par 3s on the fifth and on the eighth, which turned out to be birdies.”
Those into symmetry will point out that McIlroy had another run-in with a tree on Saturday. Instead of the root, this time it was the top of a tree that gobbled his drive on the third hole, his ball wedging in its bark.
He received a free drop from there, leading to par, later joking about his pugnacity, “I'm just glad I didn't try and play that ball from the tree.”
It was about the only aggressive shot that he didn’t try to hit during these nine holes.
That’s the thing with being the type of person who takes a bold approach. Sometimes you end up failing and injured. Other times you’re the hero.
It’s all about seeing the forest through the trees. And the tree roots, too.