AKRON, Ohio – The last time Rory McIlroy strode past the iconic water tower at Firestone Country Club, he was relishing the height of his powers.
It was Aug. 3, 2014, when McIlroy raced past Sergio Garcia with relative ease to walk away with the title at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. It came on the heels of his Open win at Royal Liverpool and directly preceded his PGA Championship triumph at Valhalla.
McIlroy was back to world No. 1. Golf was easy, and the smiles were wide.
Fast forward three years, and McIlroy returned to the interview room at Firestone knowing full well the line of questioning he would face after abruptly parting ways with longtime caddie J.P. Fitzgerald. The split serves as just the latest variable for a man who has dealt with both injury and equipment changes since ringing in the new year.
“A lot of water’s passed under the bridge since we were here in 2014,” McIlroy said. “I’ve went from yeah, riding on the crest of a wave to a couple of injuries to trying to sort of find – not find my way back again, but just find a bit of form to get back to where I know I can be.”
The path was never supposed to be this circuitous for a man of McIlroy’s talent. Coming off his win here in 2014, the notion that he would go three years without a major seemed unfathomable. It certainly feels like more than 10 months have passed since his double-dip victory at the Tour Championship.
But golf remains a fickle game, even for those who occupy the most rarified air.
The caddie switch is the latest effort by McIlroy to, as he terms it, “take ownership” of his game. But it also continues a growing trend of instability for the Ulsterman, who has spent the entire year incorporating one change or another, all in an attempt to keep pace with the likes of Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth.
That game of whack-a-mole has yielded a few passing appearances on leaderboards, including his T-4 finish at The Open, but McIlroy heads into a critical fortnight still seeking the catalyst that could return him to the heights he reached in Akron three years ago.
“I feel like my game sort of turned a corner at Birkdale. I saw some good, fighting qualities,” he said. “I didn’t have my best stuff but was able to finish fourth in the end. So it’s getting there, it’s getting there. Coming to two venues where I’ve done well at before can only give me confidence.”
“It’s getting there” has become a familiar refrain from McIlroy, especially as he struggled through a pair of missed cuts last month in Europe. But it’s also one echoed earlier in the year by Spieth, who spent weeks insisting that his game was “close” before proving it emphatically with the claret jug on the line.
“You take a few weeks off or a month in the offseason, you come back and sometimes you put in a ton of repetitions and it’s not quite the right way to do it, and that’s where you’re starting from,” Spieth said. “The hardest part is putting the grasp on exactly what it is. Once you do, and then you can nail that in enough, then you’re right back to where you were. I imagine that’s what it is with Rory.”
Regardless of who’s on the bag, McIlroy possesses the inherent skill to win this week or next – or even both, as he did in 2014. Ten days from now, the assessment of his season could very well have shifted dramatically.
But as currently constituted, it merely serves as another example of how razor-thin the margin can be for top-tier players looking to convert good shots or good rounds into trophies by the handful.
“I think more and more we’re seeing that it’s going to be harder and harder for people to be a clear No. 1 for long periods of time,” said former No. 1 Adam Scott. “I mean, we were just spoiled or led into an area that wasn’t reality with Tiger for all those years, and we’re coming off the back end of that dominance. Now No. 1 has been shared by more guys than ever, because more guys play at this level than ever.”
The man who left Firestone with the trophy three years ago is not the same one who showed up Wednesday with an unfamiliar face on the bag. He’s older, wiser, married and perhaps a bit more attuned to the mercurial nature of the sport he plays.
But the name on the back of the caddie bib still reads “McIlroy,” and the gap between the two versions may ultimately prove much smaller than it currently appears.
“It’s very quick,” Scott said. “And that’s the world we live in, too. It’s very reactive and all about what’s happening today. Yesterday is kind of forgotten.”