In the whirlwind 12 months since Rory McIlroy made mincemeat of Congressional and U.S. Open history, the likeable Ulsterman won the Honda Classic, became No. 1 in the world golf ranking, tied for 40th at Augusta National, lost a playoff to Rickie Fowler at Quail Hollow, and now leads through two rounds of the FedEx St. Jude Classic.
In his spare time he ran afoul of the United Kingdom press for what was viewed in some circles as petulant behavior at the BMW PGA Championship, raced around Rome on a moped with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki and missed three consecutive cuts to drop out of the top spot in the world order.
In other words, he’s behaved precisely like one would expect a 23-year-old globetrotting superstar to behave.
If McIlroy’s eclectic existence isn’t exactly what the golf world had in mind as he nonchalantly strolled up Congressional’s 18th green last Father’s Day with one hand on his first major championship and the other covering his stunned face, it wasn’t from a lack of warning.
Even after his eight-stroke masterpiece last year at Congressional, with a shag bag full of broken records and the U.S. Open trophy resting in front of him, McIlroy cautioned when the inevitable comparisons to Tiger Woods cropped up.
To paraphrase, McIlroy figured the last 13 majors are the hardest to win if he were ever to catch Woods, not to mention his idol Jack Nicklaus’ haul of 18 Grand Slam tilts.
So if the defending champion doesn’t exactly sport the look of the first back-to-back U.S. Open champion since Curtis Strange, in 1988-89, the second coming a month after McIlroy was born, he has come by it honestly.
Not that McIlroy’s youthful wisdom has been much solace as he navigates the first competitive valley of his young career. It’s been a free fall that’s been aggravated by startling expediency.
Following his playoff loss at the Wells Fargo Championship, McIlroy missed the cut at The Players, although that was little surprise considering his dreadful record at golf’s so-called “fifth major.” Another MC at Wentworth, where he’d played well in the past, wasn’t as easily dismissed and after he failed to advance to the weekend at Muirfield Village it became official in some media circles – Rory was slumping.
“These two-day weeks aren't really that good for me,” McIlroy laughed at his pre-tournament news conference at the Memorial.
But that easy smile concealed a growing impatience with his substandard play as did a break from his normal pre-major routine, which rarely has included playing the week before a Grand Slam.
A player who has adhered to a strict less-is-more approach for much of his young career has, in recent weeks, embraced quantity on the road to quality. At least that’s the idea.
“When you're working on things, you're always scrutinizing everything maybe a little bit more than you would when everything is going well or when you're not really thinking much about your swing or about this or that,” said McIlroy.
“But hopefully that's just a process where the more swings you make and the more holes you play, the less you'll start to think about it.'
That philosophy appears to be working. McIlroy has one eagle, nine birdies and four bogeys through 36 holes at TPC Southwind. His 7-under total has him one clear of the field.
'It's nice to see my name on that part of the leaderboard,' McIlroy said. 'It's not nice when you're struggling to make the cut on a Friday afternoon. It was great. It's nice to be through to the weekend obviously. It's obviously even nicer to be leading and have a great chance.'
Prior to teeing it up in Tennessee, McIlroy heard that the sky was falling. And maybe he believed it a little bit, as the addition of the Memphis stop and extended sessions with swing coach Michael Bannon suggested he was feeling the heat with the Open looming.
McIlroy and Bannon, who has rarely traveled with his most high-profile student, huddled in an Ohio hotel room last week looking for answers on tape. “I said to (Bannon) that I felt like I haven't really seen my swing that much this year,” McIlroy said.
But finding the proper swing plane is likely only half the battle. For the better part of a calendar, McIlroy almost effortlessly sidestepped many of the same pitfalls that have beset first-time major champions, balancing the new rigors of fame with a private life that at times was anything but.
Graeme McDowell was sent through the same rinse cycle following his Grand Slam breakthrough at the 2010 U.S. Open and marveled at McIlroy’s ability to find balance in uncharted waters.
“The difference between Rory and myself is that he’s been groomed for stardom. It’s no surprise that he’s doing the things he’s doing because he’s been a phenomenal talent for many, many years,” McDowell said. “He’s really taken his first major championship in stride and gone from strength to strength.”
As for the state of McIlroy's game – prior to his first two rounds in Memphis – McDowell was in the majority, figuring one could temporarily lose confidence but not talent. Particularly not the depth of talent that produced a record 16-under-par winning total last year at Congressional.
That McIlroy – who made the most of his weekend off at the Memorial with a four-day scouting trip to The Olympic Club – was taking this first detour in stride was further evidence that he may sometimes act like a 23-year-old away from the golf course but his golf IQ far exceeds his relative experience.
“Everyone goes through this, where they just don't feel that comfortable with their game,” McIlroy said in his signature maturity. “I just started to doubt myself a little bit.”
Besides, compared with last year, when he arrived at Congressional fresh off an epic Masters meltdown that some predicted would take years to recover from, this Open should be a breeze.
“This year I don't really have anything to prove,” he smiled.
Spoken like a true 23-year-old.