When he hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy in the dark last year at Valhalla, it seemed unthinkable that Rory McIlroy wouldn’t be on top of the golf world one year later.
If you had told someone – anyone – that McIlroy would win four times in 2015, including a World Golf Championship, and not be No. 1, you might have been dragged away by well-meaning gentlemen in white caddie smocks.
Go back and look at the world rankings on Aug. 10, 2014, the night of McIlroy’s PGA Championship victory. He was two points ahead of No. 2 Adam Scott, five and a half points ahead of No. 10 Jason Day and closer to six points ahead of No. 12 Jordan Spieth. The latter two would have to do something outrageous to pass him. Combined they would have to win something like 12 worldwide events, including three majors, for roughly $30 million.
And yet here we sit, with McIlroy behind Spieth and Day in the Official World Golf Ranking. The golf world suddenly has a new Big 3, and McIlroy, at least mathematically, is squarely third.
The reason? His absence.
McIlroy started the year with wins at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, WGC-Cadillac Match Play and Wells Fargo Championship. But just two weeks before what would have been his Open Championship defense, he suffered a “total rupture” of a ligament in his left ankle during what he called a “soccer kickabout” with friends.
In terms of breaking news, there was no sourced report. No carefully crafted statement from a team of handlers. No whispers of any kind. There was just a casual, albeit jarring Instagram post on the morning of July 6:
“Total rupture of left ATFL (ankle ligament) and associated joint capsule damage in a soccer kickabout with friends on Saturday,” McIlroy wrote next to a picture of himself on crutches, with his foot in a walking boot. “Continuing to assess extent of injury and treatment plan day by day. Rehab already started. … Working hard to get back as soon as I can.”
McIlroy didn’t make a start for two months between the U.S. Open and his return at the PGA Championship, where he played for two rounds with Spieth, who would go on to supplant him as world No. 1 at the end of the week.
Although McIlroy would return to No. 1 twice for a week at a time on Aug. 29 and Sept. 12 by virtue of how the ranking is calculated, he had clearly lost his No. 1 status in the hearts and minds of golf fans. Spieth had already won four times in 2015, including the Masters and U.S. Open, and Day was in the middle of a run that saw him win four times in six starts.
“I think it’s a lost year already, just because I didn’t win a major,” McIlroy said at East Lake. “I judge myself on the biggest tournaments and the biggest tournaments we have are the four majors, and I played OK in them but I didn’t win.”
True, but the Ulsterman himself would sing a different tune not even two months later. After winning his second DP World Championship and successfully defending his Race to Dubai title in November, Rory had suddenly shifted from calling his year “lost” to grading it an “A,” just not an “A+.”
Outside the ropes, there were reports that McIlroy got engaged and he found himself on the receiving end of some criticism when he admitted at the Tour Championship that the FedEx Cup’s $10 million purse doesn’t do much to motivate him, considering how much money he’s already made.
“Luckily, that amount of money doesn't sort of mean much to me anymore," he said at East Lake. "It will go in the bank and if I want to buy something nice, I will. It's nice to think that you could win $10 million this week, but that's not what excites me.
“It excites me to play well and to try and win. And the FedEx Cup is one of the only things that I haven't put on my golf CV, and that would be more exciting to do than walk away with a check.”
Oh, and that number also doesn’t include whatever he is now being paid by Electronic Arts. While he was on the shelf in July, EA Sports released its first Rory McIlroy PGA Tour video game, a title previously headlined for 16 editions by McIlroy’s Nike buddy, Tiger Woods. When EA was rebranding the game after a one-year hiatus, it announced McIlroy as the new face of the franchise in March.
At the time, honestly, who else could the company have picked? McIlroy was the undisputed best player in the world.
Now, he and Spieth are ranked exactly equal in McIlroy’s own video game. Call it a sign of the times.