NORTON, Mass. -- Twelve months ago seems like 12 years given all that Rory McIlroy has gone through.
This time last year, he was on top of the world, literally and figuratively, fresh off a second record-setting major victory before adding back-to-back wins at the Deutsche Bank and BMW Championships.
As McIlroy arrives at TPC Boston this week, however, he’s just hoping to “salvage” his season.
The year began with McIlroy being introduced as the next face of Nike Golf. He fell flat on his, though, with a missed cut in Abu Dhabi, a first-round exit at the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship and a mid-round walk off halfway through The Honda Classic, later admitting he wasn’t in a good place mentally (or dentally).
He rebounded quickly with top 10s at Doral, San Antonio, Charlotte and at THE PLAYERS Championship with pure talent and some old-fashioned hard work doing most of the heavy lifting. But he still wasn’t playing near the same level of golf he was a year earlier.
In his first three starts of the 2012 PGA TOUR season, McIlroy didn’t finish outside the top 3, which included holding off Tiger Woods at PGA National to not only win the tournament but supplant him as the top-ranked player in the world.
It was a position that was unfamiliar to McIlroy but one that he later solidified with three more wins in four starts between August and September. During a five-tournament stretch in that period, he was a combined 62 under.
On Monday of this week, McIlroy quietly slipped to fourth in the Official World Golf Ranking behind Woods, Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson. In McIlroy's last five tournaments, he is a combined 20 over, and save for a week in San Antonio hasn’t sniffed being in contention late on a Sunday.
Early in his career (and we should remember he’s still just 24 years old), McIlroy enjoyed the best of times, never facing adversity inside the ropes or scrutiny outside them. This year he's seen the worst of times. He has been questioned on his change in equipment, change in management, change in his appearance from bouncy and bubbly to at times sullen and shaken and a supposed change in relationship status (the latter being untrue -- he’s still very happily dating tennis star Caorline Wozniacki).
It all chipped away at his confidence leaving self-doubt and frustration behind, much the way it did for Martin Kaymer three years ago.
Following his 2010 PGA Championship win, the German soon after catapulted to No. 1 in the world. But he felt uncomfortable with the spotlight and all that went with it, on and off the course.
“It's not always about golf, you know,” Kaymer said. “Golf is a very small part. Your life is changing when you become that successful.
“You get distracted a lot and you lose the focus a little bit. At the end of the day you have the golf ball, the clubs, and you play golf. It's a game that you play, but other people put a lot of pressure on you. I lost a little bit the meaning and the attitude why I play golf. It was not that much fun anymore.”
Perhaps a return to TPC Boston will help spark something in McIlroy, who unlike Kaymer was groomed for stardom from an early age but at times has struggled with it nonetheless.
A year ago, McIlroy chased down Louis Oosthuizen here with a pair of 67s on the weekend to win by one. Winning this time would be worth more to McIlroy than just the 2,500 FedExCup points that would go with it.
“These next few events is a good opportunity to get something good out of the season," McIlroy said.
There have been signs of progress, too.
McIlroy tied for eighth at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill, where he avoided missing the cut in two consecutive majors by making four birdies over his final seven holes in the second round to see the weekend. Two days later, he was within six of the lead but got off to a shaky start. Again he recovered with three birdies over his final 13 holes to nab something more important than a top 10: Confidence.
Last week at The Barclays, McIlroy tied for 19th and showed flashes of the brilliance that is still buried deep inside him with a second-round 65.
“It feels much better,” McIlroy said when asked to compare his game now to even as recently as two months ago. “I’ve got the ball under control. I’m not as comfortable with my game as I was this time last year, but I’m in enough control that if I get on a nice run I can do well these next few events.”
Especially this week.
TPC Boston is a course that suits someone like McIlroy, who can carry the ball 300 yards in the air to take all the trouble out of play.
“Going back to venues where you’ve won always gives you positive vibes and makes you feel good,” said McIlroy, who added that he also needs to avoid making what he called stupid little mental errors. “The two majors I’ve defended at, you go back to somewhere different and it doesn’t really feel like (you’re defending). This golf course sets up well for me.”
Among those mistakes McIlroy mentioned are some glaring drop-offs in his game this season compared to last.
Consider that a year ago he was 33rd in scrambling and 58th in bounce back. This season, he’s 155th and 123rd, respectively.
He has also seen his greens in regulation in the area that wins a lot of golf tournaments, between 75 and 150 yards, fall. He’s 184th, for example, from 125-150 yards, compared to 46th from that distance a year ago.
All of it has put pressure on his putting, which was already arguably the most fragile part of his game.
But it isn’t as far away as it sounds for McIlroy. He continues to inch his way back to the player everyone fell in love with a year ago. His head is up, chest out, a smile more often on his face.
“I’m just looking for that win,” he said. "All you need is these few weeks, if you have one good finish you get into the TOUR Championship and you never know what can happen from there.”