Rory McIlroy’s year was supposed to start with a bang. That was the plan, at least.
There was smoke, that’s for sure – and lots of it. A planetarium-quality laser lights show. Some sort of massive hologram of his likeness. A video montage of his prior accomplishments.
But a bang? No, there was no bang to start. In fact, no bang ever really took place.
Ranked No. 1 in the world and fresh off a season in which he was voted Player of the Year on both the PGA and European tours, McIlroy was introduced on Jan. 14 as the newest megastar in Nike’s estimable stable at the Fairmont Hotel in Abu Dhabi amidst a presentation usually left for Justin Bieber’s opening dance routine or the home team introductions before an NBA Finals game. Apparently that’s what happens when you sign a deal for a reported $250 million, even though he punctuated the festivities by maintaining with a straight face, “I don’t play golf for money.”
Maybe it was all too much for him. Maybe the down-to-earth kid from a working-class upbringing in Northern Ireland felt too much pressure trying to live up to such hyped expectations. Or maybe his struggles were more of the technical variety. Maybe his new equipment required a lengthier adjustment period than anyone had realized. Maybe his swing wasn’t as locked in as the previous year. Or maybe there were issues in his love life. Or changing his management team for a second time was getting to him. Or the impending decision to pick a country to represent in the upcoming Olympic Games held him back. Maybe it was none of the above.
The smart money contends it was some combination of each of these things that led to his comparatively poor performance. If McIlroy himself knows, he isn’t saying – although that would be contradictory to his personality, which leaves him open and honest, almost to a fault.
What we do know is that unlike most of GolfChannel.com’s 2013 newsmakers, McIlroy is on this list more for what he didn’t accomplish than what he did.
That’s not to suggest his year was some sort of abject failure. In 25 worldwide starts, he compiled nine top-10s and a victory, though it took him until his 24th start to claim the latter. He missed the cut at The Open Championship, but finished T-25 at the Masters, T-41 at the U.S. Open and T-8 at the PGA Championship, hardly embarrassing results at the year’s most important tournaments. And he only dropped five spots in the Official World Golf Ranking, checking into the year at No. 1, but checking out at a still-impressive sixth.
Offer these numbers to most professional golfers, even some of the game’s elite talents, and they might literally take the money and run, confident in the knowledge that it might not have been a great year, but it was certainly good enough.
However, for a 24-year-old with two major titles won by eight-stroke margins already to his credit, it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t even close. But that’s not the whole story, either. McIlroy’s disappointing year was less about the results and more about the precipitous journey. Just days after that literal display of smoke and mirrors, with an advertising campaign opposite fellow swooshster Tiger Woods gaining international attention, he missed the cut in his first start. The relationship with Nike got off to such a rocky start that he switched back to his old Scotty Cameron putter – on his second day of competition after the announcement.
A month later, competing at the Honda Classic near his adopted home of Jupiter, Fla., he was already 7 over playing the ninth hole of his second round when he walked straight off the course and into the adjacent parking lot. Before speeding away, he told reporters, “I’m not in a good place mentally, you know?” Less than an hour afterward, the official reason listed for his withdrawal was an aching wisdom tooth.
If that was the nadir of the drama which seemed to follow him throughout the year, then his on-course apex finally crested on the first day of December. Trailing by a stroke entering the Australian Open’s final hole, McIlroy watched playing partner Adam Scott post bogey, then jarred a 15-foot birdie putt of his own to clinch a come-from-behind victory.
In a year when he made bigger news for what he didn’t accomplish than what he did, McIlroy’s body language told the story of a journey that didn’t start with a bang. It told the story of a young man competing under a global microscope, flushed with lofty expectations. The ball rolled into the cup and the newest champion didn’t holler. He didn’t pump his fist. He didn’t even smile.
More Newsmakers in 2013: