This isn’t the first time his career has hit a speed bump, and it won’t be the last. But among the many things McIlroy is, he’s a quick learner.
Exhibit A: The Sunday swoon at the 2011 Masters, where McIlroy shot 80 in an epic final-round collapse. Two months later, he won his first major, the U.S. Open, by eight shots by figuring out he wasn’t Tiger Woods and shouldn’t try to act like him (stoic, tunnel-visioned).
Exhibit B: After missing four of five cuts in the middle of last summer and admitting he'd "taken his eye off the ball" in terms of practice and preparation, McIlroy dusted the field at the PGA Championship with impeccable driving and shot-making all the way around Kiawah.
Exhibit C: Following his withdrawal from The Honda Classic, where McIlroy admitted to not being in a good place mentally or dentally, he did the only thing he knows how to do and that’s be honest. He was open and apologetic, calling it a mistake and saying sorry to those affected.
"I learned that when the tough gets going, I've got to stick in there a bit more and I've got to grind it out,” McIlroy said at the time. "It was a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes and I'm learning from them. Some people have the pleasure of making mistakes in private. Most of my mistakes are in the public eye."
Welcome to life in the fishbowl, kid.
That’s what happens when you win two majors by age 23, move to No. 1 in the world (though he’s since been deposed by the guy he replaced in Woods), sign a mega-bucks equipment deal and draw comparisons to your fellow Swooshmate.
“In the end something had to give,” says McIlroy confidant Graeme McDowell, who experienced his own shot of instant fame following his 2010 U.S. Open victory. “The Nike contract, all the stardom, being the No. 1 player in the world, all the pressure -- it has taken its toll.
“There was a release valve that was going to blow at some point. I suppose he felt the pressure at the start of this year to live up to expectations and new sponsors and to prove he’s worth every penny. It takes a climatizing. All these things took a toll on me.”
They appear to have on McIlroy as well, at least for the moment.
“It's nice to just go about my business and no one cares,” McIlroy said. “And not be, I guess, the most talked about person in golf. It's a nice thing.”
So is being compared to Woods, which McIlroy was as a young boy growing up on the coast of Northern Ireland. But it was at Augusta National two years ago that he figured out he wasn’t Woods -- in personality or approach -- and wouldn’t try to be.
Greatness, after all, can be reached by any number of paths.
Unlike Woods, for example, who integrated his Nike equipment piecemeal over a number of years, McIlroy’s switch came wholesale in the compressed window of the end of last season and the beginning of this one. Never mind all the extracurriculars that came with it.
Such a move is no easy task, but neither is staying at No. 1, which Woods has done longer than anyone. The difficulty of the latter has perhaps been forgotten if not the perspective twisted in the what-have-you-done-for-me-last-week world we live in.
The victim in all this hasn’t been McIlroy as much as it was short-term success. But McIloy has a couple of decades worth of golf -- and probably a few Green Jackets -- ahead, and he’s smart enough to know that.
“I don't think I'll ever go through a period like that again in my career with everything that was going on,” McIlroy said. “Now that that's gone, it's out of the way, I can just concentrate on the golf.”
The golf is what got him to this point and this week at Augusta National is just another step forward in the process, no matter the result.
“What I learned is you have to just stay the same player and the same person and not get caught up in the hype and the excitement and all the stuff that goes on around (the attention),” McIlroy said. “I’m trying to immerse myself in my own little world, and if I can do that, then that sort of blocks everything else out.”
Just don’t block it all out, Rory.
The last time he did, he found Berckman cabin instead of Butler cabin.