They don't make golfers more tantalizing, or frustrating, than young Rory McIlroy.
Two major championships by age 23, the most buttery of golf swings, a humble, grounded, approachable persona – heck, even throw in the appeal of the soft Northern Irish accent – make him about as easy a player to root for since "Champagne" Tony Lema roamed the fairways.
And yet, there is a tragic side to McIlroy's game, even at this tender age. You mix the tragedy with the many bursts of glory, and you have the recipe for McIlroy Madness.
The 2011 Masters, in which he turned a four-shot, 54-hole lead and a certain coronation into a final-round 80 (the worst score ever posted by a player leading a major after 54 holes), showed us that side of him. But we forgot about it because of how he bounced back two months later at the 2011 U.S. Open, an eight-stroke victory that called to mind a young Tiger Woods. And that he did it again, thumping the 2012 PGA Championship field by eight strokes at Kiawah? The kid not only had every shot in his bag, not only rolled it like Ben Crenshaw, he had a sense of the moment, and an ability to step on the gas and leave the world's best in his dust, and do with it with an approachable cool.
Then, with the golf world feeding from his palm, we lost him again.
His celebrated switch to Nike in early 2013 disrupted his game fiercely. He cratered under the big-money pressure, and played poorly. He walked off the course at the 2013 Honda Classic, coming up with the lamest excuse since the Sweathogs tried to bring in parents' notes to Mr. Kotter: a toothache, he said. Media scrutiny focused on his obsession with his now-fiancee, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. While only the most cynical comes out anti-young love, many wondered if young Rory was able to balance both affairs of the heart and affairs of the royal and ancient game. That he went over a year without a win spoke to the negative.
He violated a rule at Abu Dhabi in January 2014, and nearly was DQ'ed for signing the wrong scorecard until a caddie informed him of his two-stroke penalty. He blew a back-nine Sunday lead at Dubai the next week, and on top of that was questioned by many for letting Wozniacki roam inside the ropes, an unwritten no-no among the world's best.
Amid all that, there's the allure of Rory McIlroy when he is on. There was the Australian Open win in December 2013, a birdie at the last to clip hometown hero Adam Scott by one stroke, an announcement that perhaps the dust was finally settling in his life and he was back to playing that brand of golf that can be, when dialed, the best on the planet, combining distance with discipline with that Dave Stockton-coached putting stroke into the most appealing package in the sport.
Which brings us to Sunday and the 2014 Honda Classic. The symmetry was almost scripted: One year after his nadir, Rory McIlroy would return to PGA National and go wire-to-wire, assuring us all that, at 24, he is back and ready to re-launch his mighty talents. He opened with a 63, shot 66 on Friday, tamed a difficult Bear Trap on Saturday for a 69 and invited comparisons to Sam Snead from a gushing Golf Channel crew as he warmed up on the range Sunday.
And then, the collapse.
With a one-stroke lead at the turn, there is no other way to interpret what happened next than to say McIlroy got tight. He started pulling shots left, over and over. His repeated misses left caused NBC to dial up his monster miss to the left side of the 10th hole at the 2011 Masters, and for Dan Hicks to remind us that it was Lee Westwood who told the media that under pressure, Rory misses left.
Despite the fact that Jack Nicklaus sat in the NBC booth and said that, of all the contenders at PGA National, Rory was the only "proven" player, and that he should expect to finish with more of a flourish than the other "unproven" players, it did not happen that way. McIlroy coughed up the lead. He made five bogeys and a double bogey on his card, and only a somewhat-heroic birdie on the 72nd hole built around an eye-watering 3-wood from 245 yards to a tucked flagstick (again, that talent!) got him into a four-man playoff with Ryan Palmer, Russell Knox and eventual winner Russell Henley. It was a final-round 74 when victory was his, and it was crushing disappointment.
He surrendered to Henley's playoff birdie, and his PGA Tour winless drought remained active since the 2012 PGA Championship.
But then, there was that likable Rory after the carnage was over. He hung around long enough to wait through Henley's excited post-victory chat with Steve Sands, standing off on the 18th green with Roger Maltbie when so many others would have been too gutted to talk. He said he played so poorly, had he won the playoff he would have felt "undeserved" in a way, and would have "counted myself lucky" after the poor play that jettisoned his hopes. It was a remarkably classy turn from McIlroy, who must have been so frustrated he wanted to wrestle a nearby alligator.
What happens next for this tantalizing, talented young man? On to Doral he goes, for the WGC event this week, in search of himself. It's what golf, maddeningly, does to you.
SCORECARD OF THE WEEK
64-68-68-72 – 8-under 272, Russell Henley, winner (playoff), PGA Tour Honda Classic, PGA National, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Wait, was that Stuart Appleby masking himself as the swaggering Georgian, the 24-year-old who plays quickly and by feel and won his second PGA Tour event with that playoff birdie? Boy, he sure looked like Appleby. The visor, the build, the facial resemblance, the blonde hair. (Coincidentally, Appleby finished tie-8th at the Honda, his best finish on Tour since his 2010 win at the Greenbrier, causing even more doppleganger confusion.)
No, it wasn't Appleby. It was Russell Henley, who is happily making us take notice.
He's the guy who won the 2013 Sony Open, the lid-lifter in Honolulu who made us wonder if the Georgia Bulldog was a player to watch. But the rest of his 2013 season, while it included two top-10s at the Heritage and the Memorial, wasn't what he wanted. And the start to his 2014 season had not seen him play himself into contention in any of his nine starts, including missing three of his last four cuts.
But Henley is an intriguing player to observe. He reminds one of Brandt Snedeker with his pace and his natural feel, and reminds one of Keegan Bradley with his adrenalized athleticism, and he seemed juiced to be playing alongside McIlroy, who was born just a month after Henley in 1989. If golf is a mental game, Henley reminded us of that truism when he said that his missed cut at Riviera is what gave him confidence. After opening at The Riv with a 78, he shot 66 on Friday and had a putt on the last hole to make the cut. He didn't make it, but oddly, he noted, it made his confidence surge.
And at PGA National, he exuded that quality. He also exuded thrills, after holing out for eagle on the 14th hole Saturday, the highlight of the weekend. And he chipped in for birdie on the 14th hole Sunday, too, showing his flair for the dramatic. His birdie on the playoff hole showed he had more nerve than any of McIlroy, Knox or Palmer, and he joined a short list – McIlroy, Patrick Reed and Harris English – of players under the age of 25 with multiple PGA Tour wins. Plus, he flashed a little personality when he interrupted Steve Sands on NBC to say, post-victory, of a song played on the PA system, "I hear some Florida Georgia Line 'Cruise' …I can play that on guitar." We have a pickin' player, folks.
He spoke to how his win in 2013 maybe caused too much, too soon, and how, just removed from a 2011 degree at the University of Georgia, playing in the Masters and WGC events was a lot to handle. Now, he has a Rory-slaying feather in his cap, a little hop in his step and a name to keep in mind.
BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK
"He's no longer 28. He's 38, and it's a different game at that age, isn't it?" – Rich Lerner, The Golf Channel, watching Tiger Woods play the front nine on Sunday.
And that Lerner comment came even before the Tiger Drama. It came while Tiger was en route to a front-nine 40, just a day after he shot 65, and left us all wondering what the heck is going on with the defending PGA Tour Player of the Year who wound up walking off the golf course on the 13th hole, citing "lower back spasms."
This means that we are in March, and the weirdest stat of the year is that Tiger Woods has not finished a round of golf on Sunday on the PGA Tour in 2014. He missed the Saturday cut line at Torrey Pines in January, took the next five weeks off, and then climbed into a van mid-round on Sunday at PGA National with his fourth withdrawal since 2010, after posting only two career withdrawals from 1997-2010. As one wag noted, turns out you can't spell 'Tiger Woods' without 'W and D.' Many questioned why he never withdraws when he's within a shot or two of the lead. Or, noting that Tiger has now withdrawn from The Players Championship, Doral and the Honda, the Augusta Chronicle's Scott Michaux tweeted that he is a Bay Hill W/D away from the "Florida Trunk Slam." Hey, now!
Tiger used to ride the reputation of the player who "grinded out" everything, that he never mailed it in like his foundering foil, Phil Mickelson, used to. Now, look at the two of them. Lefty is a U.S. Open short of a career Grand Slam, still riding the high of the Muirfield Claret Jug, a sentimental favorite everywhere at age 42. Tiger has last year's five wins, but no majors since the George W. Bush administration and a lot of weirdness to start his year.
Will he play this week at Doral? He says he'll need treatment all week before he makes that call, but knowing that he's won what is now the WGC-Cadillac Championship seven times (at five different courses), and won it last year at Doral, the heavy money is seeing the "lower back spasms" mysteriously cleared up by Thursday.
MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK
The crazy thing about the Rory Tragedy is it was inches away from being the Rory Majesty.
After toting those five bogeys and the double to the 72nd tee, leaking oil everywhere, looking like a lost little lamb, one shot off the lead, Rory roasted his tee shot, then obliterated a 3-wood from 245 to about 12 feet to set up an eagle for the win. It was a "wow" moment, and McIlroy knew it, staring it down, then clapping his hands together, then giving an old Lleyton Hewitt-styled "Come ON!" shout. If McIlroy was to fulfill his destiny as the New Tiger, he'd surely bury the eagle putt for the win of the year, a one-shot triumph built on testicles and testosterone.
Except … he missed it on the low side.
He'd settle for birdie and a playoff.
Johnny Miller called it, saying when players get nervous, the right hand gets strong, and the push is always the miss. To think, how the narrative would change had McIlroy made the putt.
So, let's go back out to 18 green at PGA National, remind Rory of the Tiger script he could write, remind him of every Dave Stockton tip he's ever gotten, remind ourselves of how explosive a finish it would have been had McIlroy eagled the last for the win and … give that man a mulligan!
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
It's the second WGC event of the year, the Cadillac Championships at Doral, and it's Tiger's place, so he'll be there, right? Right.
It's time for a Rory comeback, a Phil surge, a Victor Dubuisson miracle save and all the things the top 50-ranked players in the world – all confirmed to play – bring.