'One direction' - Rory McIlroy's year summed up in two words

By Iain CarterBBC golf correspondent
Rory McIlroy with Quail Hollow trophy
Rory McIlroy set a new tournament record score in winning the Wells Fargo Championship

A year ago this week, Rory McIlroy appeared a shattered man in the wake of his split from Caroline Wozniacki.

At an eve-of-tournament news conference, McIlroy seemed distraught. He had ended one of sport's highest-profile romances just as the wedding invitations were being sent out.

He was also about to compete on Wentworth's West Course, a lay-out he struggles to enjoy.

But now he had ended his relationship with the former tennis world number one, he made the simple vow to immerse himself in his golf.

McIlroy on split with fiancee Wozniacki

And he set the tone right away by surging to an unlikely victory at the BMW PGA Championship, the title he defends this week.

It was a landmark win for many reasons, but primarily because it told the Northern Irishman he could triumph on courses that don't fit his eye.

And it signalled the start of a blistering run of success.

It was one of seven tournaments McIlroy won of the 24 he has played over the past year. Two were majors - the Open and US PGA - and two were World Golf Championships.

His most recent victory came on Sunday at Quail Hollow, where he blew away the field to win by seven strokes in a record 21 under par. This at the course that will stage the 2017 US PGA.

In a devastating 12-month spell McIlroy has also been a runner-up four times, and this year alone has five top-10s from seven starts on the PGA Tour. Quail Hollow was his third win of 2015 and his second in his past three tournaments - he also won the Dubai Desert Classic in February.

Victory meant he became the first non-American to triumph 11 times on the PGA Tour before turning 30, passing the great Gary Player, who won 10. Multiple major champions Seve Ballesteros and Ernie Els had won only seven times before their 30th birthdays.

In the past year, McIlroy has only missed two cuts - he was tied 76th at the Irish Open and struggled to a share of 95th at the Honda Classic. But even allowing for the inflationary effect of those lowly returns, his average finishing position in that period is 13th.

These are astonishing statistics and, though he could finish only fourth behind Jordan Spieth at the Masters, there is no doubting McIlroy's position as a commanding world number one.

The rankings bear that out, with the gap between the 26-year-old and nearest rival Spieth greater than the margin separating the 21-year-old Texan from Hideki Matsuyama in 14th.

McIlroy says Spieth's Masters success and Rickie Fowler's recent victory at the Players Championship are motivating factors.

"It does push me," the champion said in the wake of his latest triumph.

"I think you see guys that you knew well, guys that are your peers and they're winning big golf tournaments that you want to win. It spurs you on to go and maybe practise a little bit harder or just try and play a little bit better.

Rickie Fowler
Rickie Fowler won the Players Championship shortly after finishing joint-top with Ian Poulter when their fellow players were asked to choose the most overrated player on Tour

"I feel like, as the best player in the world, I want to go at it every week and not so much prove it but just show that."

McIlroy is blessed with talents perfectly suited to the modern game. He is also prepared to work hard to make the most of those skills.

It is a big-hitting game these days and golf courses that measure 7,500 yards are being rendered too short by the muscular generation McIlroy spearheads.

The four-time major winner averaged 321 yards off the tee during his latest victory. During his stunning third-round 61, McIlroy used nine iron or less to hit into 15 of the 18 holes. The length of his average approach shot to the par-fours on what is a robust championship course was a mere 117 yards.

Yet he is not just a bomber, as he proved by threading a wonderful approach through trees to the last in his final round on Sunday.

"I don't think my game has ever been in better shape," said McIlroy, who joked his final-round 69 had been "sort of boring" because he was able to stroll to victory.

And this, perhaps, highlights the mental strength that constitutes his greatest quality - he invariably makes the most of winning opportunities thanks to an inner calm and confidence.

McIlroy at the majors (best finish)
Masters: Fourth (2015)US Open: Won (2011)
Open: Won (2014)US PGA: Won (2012 & 2014)

Often it has been victory at a canter, as at Quail Hollow and in Dubai at the start of the year. He won the first two of his majors - the 2011 US Open and 2012 US PGA - by eight strokes.

But he has also needed to scrap for victory at times, as he did to edge out Fowler and Phil Mickelson at the US PGA last year.

He has converted seven out of nine 54-hole leads into PGA Tour victories, showing his capacity to grab tournaments and exploit the spoils of what are becoming trademark charges.

"I get stretches of golf during tournaments where I'm on and I make a lot birdies and then, if you can do that, you can pick and choose where you want to be aggressive," he said.

So the form line points firmly to a successful title defence at Wentworth this week - after all, he doesn't even have the trauma of breaking off an engagement in the backdrop.

Except golf doesn't always work that way, even for a man of McIlroy's talents.

Given his hectic schedule - this will be the fourth of five consecutive weeks of competition - it would be some effort for him to retain his title on the West Course.

He flew by private jet on Sunday night into London for a succession of sponsor commitments before turning his attention to his quest to land back-to-back titles.

On Tuesday evening he is scheduled to collect his 2014 European Tour Player of the Year award at a glitzy ceremony at a Heathrow hotel, with coverage in a BBC Radio 5 live special.

And then there's the Wednesday pro-am, in which he hooks up with boy-band singer Niall Horan.

A year ago all the off-course talk centred around the romance that straddled golf and tennis. Now it's more about the golfer, his wins and his showbiz pal.

Actually, it's rather appropriate he has become such friends with someone from a band called One Direction.

It neatly sums up McIlroy's relentless upward trend.

Niall Horan and Rory McIlroy
One Direction's Niall Horan caddied for McIlroy at the Masters Par 3 Contest


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