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Now McIlroy can begin healing process

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The only thing harder than figuring out how to deal with love is figuring out how to deal with love with the whole world watching.

In all, Rory McIlroy and Caroline Wozniacki did a pretty good job.

Both are very public figures. Both have been ranked No. 1 in the world: McIlroy in golf, Wozniacki in tennis. Both knew they were going to be subjected to constant public scrutiny from the minute they started dating three years ago. He was 22, she was just turning 20. She had already been No. 1 in her world; he was on his way to that ranking in his.

For a while it was fairy-tale stuff. But real life isn’t a fairy tale. Only on rare occasions do people live happily ever after. Which is why, after a year of rumored break-ups and an announced engagement, it wasn’t shocking when McIlroy said Wednesday that there would be no wedding.

“The wedding invitations issued at the weekend made me realize I wasn’t ready for all that marriage entails,” he said in a statement.

A few hours later, McIlroy showed up, as scheduled, for his pre-tournament news conference at the BMW PGA Championship and answered questions awkwardly and sadly for a few minutes. There’s little doubt that he’s torn up by the decision. There’s also little doubt that he gave it a great deal of thought.

The break-up, five months after the engagement, appears to the culmination of a turbulent 18 months in the life of a young athlete who is learning on the job how to deal with stardom.

Late in 2012, McIlroy appeared to have everything, in what had already been a remarkable career and life, under control. He had just won his second major title – each by eight shots – and had played on a winning Ryder Cup team for the second time. He was the No. 1-ranked player in the world and he was dating a glamorous tennis player who – like him – seemed comfortable in the spotlight.

McIlroy calls off engagement to Wozniacki

And then, very quickly, things began to slide. He fired his agent, the experienced Chubby Chandler, and replaced him with a group that was as new to the ways of celebrity as Chandler was an old hand at them. Almost instantly the new agents made a much-ballyhooed deal with Nike, which was looking for a new young golf superstar to add to its stable with Tiger Woods’ golf future appearing uncertain.

McIlroy took the money and his game went south almost before the ink on the contract was dry. He was certainly not the first golfer to change equipment in return for mega-dollars or the first to do it and struggle with his game. But he did it while he was the No. 1 player in the world.

For the first time in his life, McIlroy began to make mistakes off the course. The player who had handled a Sunday meltdown at Augusta with extraordinary grace walked off the golf course during the second round of the Honda Classic because he was embarrassed by and frustrated with his game. His new handlers made it worse by claiming he had a toothache. McIlroy later admitted the toothache had nothing to do with the walk-off but the memory of the botched handling of a bad situation lingered.

Then came another change of agents and threatened lawsuits followed by rumors that he and Wozniacki were breaking up. McIlroy’s golf game was nowhere to be found all summer. By the time he reached the PGA Championship in August he was being asked if he thought he had been unfairly pilloried by the media in Europe.

“That’s for you guys to decide, not me,” he said, clearly upset with what had been said and written, but smart enough to know that at least some of it was true.

When he won at the end of the year in Australia it appeared things were turning back around. Then came the announcement of his engagement to Wozniacki, which ended the break-up rumors. So much for those ready to write him off at 24 as a two-(major)-hit wonder.

He has played well in fits and starts in 2014. He appeared on his way to winning at the Honda – which would have represented a wonderful turnaround one year after tooth-gate - but collapsed en route to the Sunday finish line, losing in a playoff. More recently, he has become the king of the backdoor top 10 – which isn’t bad for the wallet but is hardly what a player with hall-of-fame potential is looking to achieve.

He thought he’d found something with his putter on the last day at the Masters. No, not yet.

We may now know the reason for the inconsistency on the golf course: confusion off of it. The greatest relationship in the world is difficult. Ask any couple that’s been married for 40 or 50 years if it’s been all seashells and balloons and watch them react.

There’s no reason to assign blame when an engagement is broken off. Better, in fact, for a couple to realize that marriage isn’t going to work before all the complications that come with marriage come into play. Most of us aren’t ready to be married in our 20s. Or our 30s, for that matter.

McIlroy is more comfortable now with his equipment. He is still searching for consistency with his putter but he was doing the same thing when he was ranked No. 1. He may be closer to stability with his management team.

All those issues pale, though, in comparison to feeling as if something is wrong with your personal life. The worst thing anyone can deal with is a problem regarding one of your children. The second-worst is a problem with your spouse or loved one. Clearly, McIlroy has been trying to figure out what is the best thing for him and for Wozniacki for a while now. The fact that he would decide it was time to cut the cord only days after wedding invitations were sent out makes it seem this was a decision he agonized about.

Chances are, he won’t put it behind him right away. He said Wednesday that he looked forward to escaping when he gets between the ropes and focusing just on golf. That won’t be easy.

But in time, it will get easier. And then, maybe in the not-too-distant future, we may again see the Rory McIlroy who lit up his sport in 2011 and 2012. It would be a welcome sight.