When Rory McIlroy stunned the world by romping to an eight-shot victory at last year’s US Open, the comparisons to Tiger Woods were inevitable.
And almost as inevitably, McIlroy hasn’t lived up to them.
Not that it’s his fault, because from the beginning, the affable young Northern Irishman maintained he wanted to be the first Rory, not the next Tiger.
Because to be the next Tiger isn’t just about having more talent than everyone else. (McIlroy, at his best, is a prodigious talent). It’s about devoting your entire life to the single-minded pursuit of excellence in golf, at the expense of just about everything else.
In the end, that becomes so unreasonable a way to live that even Woods couldn’t do it anymore.
Indeed, the unrelenting pressure to be Tiger Woods must have contributed to his wandering to dark places.
McIlroy, on the other hand, openly talks about having balance in his life. And that’s healthy.
So when he wants to spend time with his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, in Paris, it’s hard to be critical of him.
Who’d rather beat thousands of balls on a range than nurturing young love along the Champs-Elysees?
But that balance comes at a cost … and it’s been at the expense of his golf game.
This became clear in the wake of the Masters, when the 23-year-old was well placed through two rounds, but played poorly on the Saturday, then mailed in his final round.
McIlroy had been excellent in the lead-up to the year’s first major, famously holding off a barnstorming Woods at the Honda Classic and claiming the world no. 1 ranking at the same time, making the final of the Match Play in Tucson and overcoming an opening 73 at Doral to finish tied for third.
He rebounded well after the disappointment of Augusta National with a chance to win at Quail Hollow, but there were signs there, too, that not all was right.
When the moment of truth came, McIlroy — with a wedge in his hand — fell short, and instead it was Rickie Fowler who prevailed in a three-man playoff.
McIlroy then missed three consecutive cuts, the last of them at the Memorial two weeks ago. There he looked as lost as he’s ever looked.
But, deep down, he knew what was happening.
"The missed cuts were maybe what I needed," he conceded, "You’ve still got to work hard, put the time and effort in."
His boyhood coach from Northern Ireland, Michael Bannon, was summoned to help fix the swing flaws and address the "lazy habits" McIlroy had gotten into during his slump.
The two of them got him back into contention last week at Memphis.
But it had to be of concern that with the tournament on the line, he pull-hooked his tee shot — the same kind of swing that led to his undoing at the 2010 Masters — on the last hole. McIlroy’s ball found the water, leading to a double-bogey.
As he tries to become only the third player in 74 years to defend a US Open title (Ben Hogan in 1950-51 and Curtis Strange in 1988-89 were the others), McIlroy concedes his confidence isn’t as high as some would think.
"Of course it does," he said when asked if missing cuts took a toll. "I think it’s only natural you just start to question yourself and question your game a little bit."
The Memphis tournament, he said, was, on balance, a positive experience.
"That was a disappointing last few holes for me, but leading up to that point I felt like I played some really good golf," he said. "And it was great to see. I hadn’t played that sort of golf for a few weeks. So it was nice to see that, especially coming into this week."
At 23, he admits he’s still learning about how he should live his life.
But he’s not apologizing.
"It’s just finding a balance of everything," he said. "With getting enough practice, sponsor commitments, media. You know, what tournaments to play, having a life outside of what you do around golf. … It is about finding a balance.
"And it’s something I still feel like I’m learning to do. But, yeah, I’m not complaining. I feel like I’m in a great place. I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing."