What makes Rory McIlroy one for the ages is not the fact that he’s three-quarters of the way to the career grand slam at the age of 25, although there’s no denying that’s a remarkable accomplishment that is to be celebrated today.
What truly makes McIlroy one for the ages are the occasions that weren’t celebrated, those that some felt made him damaged goods despite the obvious potential that turned to reality despite rough patches that he could have sulked over, but learned from and took strength from instead.
Even with a hard-charging Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler threatening to make Sunday’s final round at the Open Championship an epic meltdown when McIlroy’s six-shot lead dwindle down to two at Royal Liverpool, he said afterwards that his main focus was minding his own business.
It wasn’t so much that his one-under 71 was a clunker, but he caused some anxious moments when he bogeyed five and six to open the gate for an unlikely finish, but he did what was required with three birdies and a bogey the rest of the way to to hold off Garcia (66) and Fowler (67). who tied for second.
It could have been worse, much worse, as it was at the Masters, the last jewel McIlroy needs for the slam, in 2011 when he went into the final round with a four-shot lead, then proceeded to shoot an 80, leading to the dire predictions about his future.
He answered those predictions by winning the U.S. Open a couple of months later by eight shots at Congressional.
Of course, his first major championship magnified a tailspin he went into the following year after winning the Honda Classic, but after missing three cuts, he won the second jewel in the slam, the 2012 PGA Championship, again by eight at the age of 23.
He also moved to No. 1 in the world and he went on to win the Deutsche Bank Championship and the BMW Championship to win PGA Tour player of the year.
Last year, he stumbled through a winless season on both the European and PGA Tours and the most notable moment of the year came when he withdrew midway through the second round of the Honda Classic, a tournament he had won the year before, initially blaming a sore wisdom tooth.
At that point, McIlroy was seven over through eight holes.
This year, coming into the Open Championship, he was winless on the PGA Tour, although he came close again at the Honda Classic, where he lost in a playoff, and he took the BMW PGA Championship in Europe. Now, he has the major that he has long wanted.
Where he goes from here is anybody’s guess. That’s what makes him interesting for those who can get past Tiger Woods in golf.
Over the years, he’s had well-documented splits with managers and management companies, as well as his fiancee Caroline Wozniacki.
He’s had verbal battles with media and when he struggled last year, it was blamed by some on an equipment change to Nike, which can understandably be expected to make the most of McIlroy’s British Open win.
He’s been petulant and he created some of his own problems, but this is not about who’s to blame. McIlroy has had a lot to contend with in his early 20s, even more than Woods did at that age before injuries and personal problems hit later in his career.
It’s still too early to predict that McIlroy can take a run at Woods’ 14 majors or Jack Nicklaus’ 18, but it is at least conceivable.
What is certain is that there will be rough patches ahead as there is for every golfer and what makes McIlroy one for the ages is that he comes out of them even stronger than before.