It was 10 years ago Monday that Rory McIlroy turned professional, and all he’s done since is win four majors, hold the No. 1 world ranking for 95 weeks and become the most electrifying player of the post-Tiger Woods era.
But perhaps it’s fitting that this landmark falls today, with McIlroy at a professional crossroads.
It’s been a transitional year, both on and off the course, and Sunday marked the end of a disappointing PGA Tour season in which he couldn’t even qualify for the Tour Championship a year after he captured the season-long title.
He battled an injury all year, leading to a stop-start schedule and compensations with his swing.
He dumped his longtime caddie and now heads into a long offseason in need of a full-time looper.
He got married in April.
And he plummeted to No. 8 in the world – interesting because it’s not only his worst position since spring 2014 (and figures to get worse, with an extended layoff), but four of the players ranked ahead of him are younger.
How McIlroy responds will dominate the run-up to next year’s Masters, but this is more a time for reflection than projection.
His evolution has been remarkable to watch.
After all, he arrived on the scene as a pudgy, mop-haired kid from Holywood. Now, save for an injured rib, he is arguably the most physically fit player on Tour.
Both of his parents, Gerry and Rosie, worked extra jobs to help fund Rory’s dream of becoming a professional golfer. Now, he is rich beyond his wildest dreams, raking in $50 million last year alone.
After signing his professional papers in ’07, McIlroy has won four majors (most of any player in that time frame), captured the PGA and European tours’ season-long title a combined four times, and starred on three victorious Ryder Cup teams.
Perhaps most interestingly, though, McIlroy is known now for more than just his sterling playing record.
In an era of aggressive over-management by p.r. reps, the 28-year-old has become one of the sport’s most refreshing voices, unafraid to sound off on a variety of topics – from the Olympics to drug testing, from a club’s exclusive membership practices to course setups, from Tiger to Trump.
His news conferences at majors often are appointment viewing, and McIlroy, like so many of today’s young stars, remains engaging, interesting and thoughtful.
Indeed, it’s a testament to McIlroy’s candor and likability that he’s been able to emerge relatively unscathed from a series of controversies over the past decade. The high-profile equipment changes. The nasty split with his management team. The wedding-invitation breakup.
His gaps between victories might vary, but rarely does he go weeks without a headline.
McIlroy plans to go dark this fall, however, after teeing it up at the British Masters and the Dunhill Links – his last chance to continue his streak of at least one win since 2008 – and there is much to consider.
Steve Elkington memorably questioned McIlroy’s motivation earlier this year, and there’s little doubt that the former Boy Wonder is at a different place in his life: happily married, in the process of renovating the couple’s new home in South Florida, and thinking about starting a family in the next few years. His health is now the top priority; the past few months he has played away from pain, relying mostly on draws to avoid discomfort. His wedge game and putting also need work if he’s to regain his rightful place as golf’s alpha dog.
Still, the landscape has changed dramatically since he won the most recent of his four majors, in August 2014. Jordan Spieth has won three majors; at times, Dustin Johnson has looked unbeatable; Jason Day, Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka all have broken through, and players like Rickie Fowler and Hideki Matsuyama and Jon Rahm don’t appear far behind. The attributes that made McIlroy so dominant – the outrageous length, the red-hot putting, the swagger – now are shared by much of the game’s elite.
Only McIlroy knows what can give him an edge again. But here’s hoping that he finds that spark, that he makes his second decade as a pro as fruitful and entertaining as his first.