As if Rory McIlroy needed to prove anything else this season, he closed out his year with five-consecutive birdies to capture the DP World Tour Championship and the European Tour’s Race to Dubai title.
Obviously no one knows how the remainder of McIlroy’s career will play out.
But, if we are writing history as we go, 2011 could be considered McIlroy’s breakout year, while 2012 was the season in which he truly established himself as golf’s next big thing and took a stranglehold on the World Golf Rankings.
McIlroy won five times in 2012, including his second major title at the PGA Championship back in August.
The 23-year-old Northern Irishman won the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, finished second in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs and captured both the PGA Tour and European Tour money titles.
McIlroy was already named the PGA of America’s Player of the Year (which comes as no surprise as he won the PGA Championship, which is organized by the PGA of America), he has won the Vardon Trophy for the PGA Tour’s lowest adjusted scoring average and he will undoubtedly be voted by his peers as both the PGA Tour and European Tour Player of the Year.
And, just to top it all off, McIlroy is reportedly about to sign an equipment deal with Nike which could net him as much as $250 million over the next 10 years.
But what has been most impressive about McIlroy’s performance in 2012 is that he is already flirting with the level of golf that few players in history have ever managed to reach: an ability to win without his best game.
McIlroy was not at his best last week in Dubai. He was sick from what he believed to be a case of sunstroke; he missed a number of short- to medium-range putts and was inconsistent off the tee for most of the week. But, he still managed to remain in contention heading into Sunday, where a closing birdie barrage was enough to earn him the title.
This past September, McIlroy won back-to-back FedEx Cup playoff events at the Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship with a game that he’d likely rate as above-average, but certainly not his best.
When McIlroy is at as best, as he was during the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship, he has demonstrated an ability to completely blow away the field.
Granted, we are really only three years into McIlroy’s career, but his ability to win with his ‘B’ and ‘C’ game, while winning majors by a margin of eight strokes with his ‘A’ game, demonstrates a maturation of an extremely talented golfer…which is bad news if you happen to be a member of the PGA or European Tours.
Considering that McIlroy’s prime could last another 20 years depending upon his health, desire and, of course, the quality of his game, the first chapter of what could be an incredibly successful career has yet to be completed, let alone trying to predict how the next 20 years will play out.
But, if his success continues well into the future, most golf historians will look back at 2011 as the year McIlroy finally broke out, and they will look at 2012 as the year McIlroy took that next step from promising young talent to the game’s undisputed top-dog.