It was, of all people, probably a former American Ryder Cup captain, one of just four winning skippers in the last 27 years it should be noted, that helped wrest Europe’s best and brightest out of a slump and back into the leading role as the Continent’s undisputed alpha male.
Or maybe the credit should go to a salt-of-the-earth lawman from middle America for keeping a great season from being marred by an embarrassing time zone snafu at the Ryder Cup.
Or perhaps the competitive climb that is Rory McIlroy should be owned by all of us. Born in Holywood, Northern Ireland, seasoned to play a global game, but it is his status as a bona fide American favorite that made the Ulsterman the year’s top newsmaker.
It is a nod to McIlroy’s priorities, and his upbringing, that he is equal parts sensational talent and showman. In 2012 he didn’t just win, he did it with style points to spare.
There were plenty of champions in 2012, but few demanded our attention like McIlroy. It is an asset etched into his DNA and on display even when he’s not playing from the front of the pack.
Early into his opening turn at the 2011 PGA Championship McIlroy strained a tendon in his right wrist when he played a shot off an Atlanta Athletic Club tree root. Despite suggestions from his caddie and trainer to take a knee and not risk further injury he played on.
At the time we asked McIlroy’s father, Gerry, why his only son refused to yield and the answer was almost prophetic, although it certainly wasn’t intended to be. “He thinks all these people are here to see him,” Gerry McIlroy said.
And they watched in droves in 2012, marveling at the 23-year-old’s play and poise. He began his ’12 PGA Tour campaign with a runner-up showing at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and held off a charging Tiger Woods on Sunday at The Honda Classic to reclaim the top spot in the world golf ranking.
Late Sunday at PGA National, McIlroy was asked about the state of the game and his lofty position atop the heap. “Exciting times,” he smiled, elegant and, as it turns out, wildly understated.
Around the globe McIlroy would post a “fab five” start to the season, finishing runner-up (Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship), fifth (Dubai Desert Classic), runner-up (Match Play), first (Honda) and third (WGC-Cadillac Championship). What followed, however, was a forged-by-conflict season that transformed a good calendar into something truly special.
Following a playoff loss to Rickie Fowler at the Quail Hollow Championship McIlroy missed three consecutive cuts around the world and posted just two top-10 finishes in a run of seven events.
Publicly McIlroy dismissed suggestions that he had played his way into the first valley of a career that until then had been largely dominated by peaks, but there were signs that his slide had set off alarms in Camp Rory.
In early June he added the FedEx St. Jude Classic to his schedule as he searched for answers and consistency and for the first time in his young career McIlroy had his swing coach, Michael Bannon, join him on Tour. But it was another member of McIlroy’s inner circle that helped wrest the Ulsterman out of his swoon and the tonic had little to do with the mechanics of his swing.
“I turn on the TV and look at him and see he’s not playing well. I told him I don’t want to know that,” McIlroy’s short-game coach and the ’91 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Dave Stockton Sr. told the Ulsterman in August. “I drilled him last week. I said, 'You can’t do that, you just cannot do that. Jack (Nicklaus) never did that. Tiger never did that. Nicklaus was the best.' I’m sure he got mad but I don’t remember him ever showing it.”
In his next start McIlroy tied for fifth at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and followed that with his second major romp.
Of all the accolades McIlroy collected at the PGA Championship it was his eight-stroke margin of victory that set a new historical footnote, supplanting Nicklaus in the record books, and rocked the status quo.
“He never gave anyone the vaguest whiff, maybe on the breeze, just a little something. No. That was locked up so tight the entire round. It was perfect. He did what all great players can do, he played the best possible golf as if it had the least possible consequence,” said David Feherty, the on-course reporter following McIlroy on Sunday at Kiawah Island. “It’s the greatest round of golf I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Tiger Woods play a lot of golf, but that was something special.”
By comparison, the rest of 2012 was little more than a victory lap, although it felt more like a coronation. McIlroy won back-to-back FedEx Cup playoff events (Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship) – with apologies to Brandt Snedeker, McIlroy’s inability to secure the season-long title seemed more like a pencil whipping than an outright loss – and staved off a potentially embarrassing faux pas at September’s Ryder Cup thanks to the efforts of Lombard (Ill.) deputy police chief Patrick Rollins, who raced the European hero to Medinah just in time to help secure Europe's one-point victory.
For McIlroy 2012 wasn’t a dramatic leap forward in how he performed so much as it was an attitude adjustment to a more single-minded, some have even suggested tougher, player.
“I have probably changed my mindset a little bit over the past 12 or 18 months, and it's definitely helped and obviously helped me to win more tournaments,” said McIlroy, who added money titles on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean for good measure. “My personality away from the golf course hasn't changed, but definitely when I get to the golf course I'm maybe a little more professional, a little more businesslike and go about my business like that.”
Over the past 12 months, McIlroy endured the ultimate competitive bell curve, mid-summer travails book-ended by historic triumph. That he did it with a panache that transcended a passport made him a true American favorite.