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Rory McIlroy married Erica Stoll but his game's in the rough - just don't bet against miraculous comeback in 2018

The Holywood superstar has suffered an annus horribilis on the fairways by his high standards, but whether the dip is due to ongoing fitness issues or other distractions, he is still very capable of reclaiming his World No1 title

Rory McIlroy and his wife Erica Stoll
Rory McIlroy and his wife Erica Stoll
Rory celebrates with his father Gerry after winning the US Open in 2011
Rory after winning the US Open in 2011

John Laverty

It was as close to sporting perfection as you're ever likely to see. To be at Congressional that weekend was to bear witness to something truly special. Rory McIlroy not only destroyed the opposition, he eviscerated the Maryland course itself.

You were left either awestruck or scratching your head - or both - as the records tumbled.

By the time the final putt dropped, we already knew we were watching the youngest US Open champion in almost a century.

We were gawping at a previously unimaginable 16-under-par winning score for this competition, at a 22-year-old who had hit a record 62 out of 72 greens in regulation, at a final round procession to inevitable, jaw-dropping triumph.

And the young man in the white trousers and light blue shirt had made it look so effortless. It was hard to imagine that, only a few weeks earlier, we'd been fearing that McIlroy's career would be defined by the notorious 'Masters Meltdown' on the final day back nine at Augusta.

How wrong can you be? "Happy Father's Day," he whispered to Gerry before embracing his proud dad on the afternoon of Sunday, June 19, 2011.

As the huge gleaming trophy was handed over, one of Rory's vanquished opponents, Edoardo Molinari, told a TV crew: "This day was inevitable … the boy is a genius."

Level-headed Rory was well aware that life would never be the same again after that, his first Major win.

And within two years the charismatic Northern Ireland man was one of the most recognised - and marketable - sports stars on the planet.

The offers kept coming - as did the victories. Three more Majors, various other tournament wins, Ryder Cup glory with Europe, one of the biggest sponsorship deals in sports history - and 95 weeks as world number one.

This is a man who has millions of Twitter followers, has the personal phone numbers of Barack Obama, Donald Trump and the future Mrs Harry Windsor in his contacts book, who has people sitting around sponsors' corporate tables dreaming up ways of further boosting a net worth already beyond most people's imaginations.

For the longest time, the only vexing question was: when's Rory going to win a Masters?

But now it's this: is he still capable of winning at all? More to the point, what exactly happened to Rory McIlroy in 2017?

This time last year he was number two in the rankings, now he's 10th - the lowest for a decade.

He hasn't occupied the top spot since 2015.

And, for the first time since 2008, he has endured a season bereft of any silverware.

Not only that, but JP Fitzgerald, his caddy for the past nine years, became the latest to experience the professionally ruthless, tunnel-visioned side of US-based Rory.

Ironically, JP's services were dispensed with only days after the four-time Major winner had lavishly praised him for that memorable "You're Rory McIlroy … what the f*** are you doing?" gee-up remark during the Open Championship. JP now has an inkling of how the likes of Holly Sweeney, Horizon (management company), Titleist (equipment sponsors) and Caroline Wozniacki felt when Rory decided it was time to go off in a different direction.

Graeme McDowell also admitted that his compatriot's dispute with Horizon - which had both men as flagship clients - strained a seemingly unbreakable friendship.

Wee Mac and G-Mac weren't paired together the last time both were available for the Ryder Cup - although, from a purely golf point of view, their partnership wasn't as successful as some rose-tinted memories tend to imply.

And McDowell didn't even make the European team last time, as the one-time US Open winner's form had largely disintegrated.

Is Rory in the proverbial rough too, or is this just another, albeit a typically long, dip in the career of a man who is, by now, well acquainted with the vicissitudes of golf?

It is, after all, a statistics-dominated sport and this article started off with some pretty impressive ones.

So consider these: on the PGA Tour this season, McIlroy was ranked a creditable third in 'strokes gained off the tee'.

Ergo, that boy can still drive a golf ball despite introducing a swing change last year, the legacy of which was a nagging rib injury.

But when it came to 'strokes gained putting' - the real business end of the game - Rory found himself a lowly 140th on the list. By the end of August he'd used no fewer than nine different putters in tournament play - and even changed his ball after another unsatisfactory Masters.

The constant tinkering was perhaps an inevitable legacy of Nike's abrupt dissolution of its golf equipment interests last year.

Indeed, some mystic conspiracy theorists might even posit that our boy is the latest high-profile victim of the so-called 'Nike curse', a phenomenon which has apparently destroyed the stratospheric careers of, among others, Tiger Woods, Oscar Pistorius, Lance Armstrong and Maria Sharapova.

Certainly, the Co Down man's highly lucrative 'switch to the swoosh' in January 2013 coincided with a dip in fortunes on the fairways that year.

Having been contractually compelled to change all his equipment to new paymasters Nike, McIlroy dropped from one to seven in the world and was triumphant in just one tournament, the Australian Open.

There was a major romantic distraction in 2013 as well - his high-profile relationship and subsequent engagement to Danish tennis star Wozniacki, who would be by his side until her fiance opted not to make 'Wozzilroy' a permanent fixture.

What's love got to do with it?

Probably a lot, when you consider that this latest annus horribilis on the golf course also yielded Rory's happiest moment off it … marrying the love of his life, Erica Stoll (pictured with Rory, left), at Ashford Castle in April.

And we're also venturing towards George Best-style 'Where did it all go wrong?' territory with 2017 also the year this gilded genius became, officially, golf's highest earning star.

According to the latest annual stats from Golf Digest, McIlroy tops the earnings league courtesy of an eye-watering £23.68m - and that's just from endorsements.

By way of comparison, it's more than double what current world number one golfer, Dustin Johnson, made from his sponsors.

For a man who isn't motivated by money, Rory sure has an awful lot of it.

In April of this year, he signed an extension to his already gargantuan Nike deal which could be worth £148m over the next decade. The following month, his 28th birthday coincided with a new multi-year equipment contract with TaylorMade, which may ultimately add £68m to the McIlroy coffers.

But where there's give, there has to be some take.

In an interview with Global Golf Post earlier this year, Rory admitted that - due to his ongoing fitness problems - he should have pulled out of the US Open in June.

And after competing in another Major, the USPGA, in August, he mused about suspending all on-course activity for the remainder of the 2017 season.

So why didn't he? When asked, shortly after the USPGA, if he'd been 'leaned on' to keep playing, Rory wasn't in any hurry to dismiss the suggestion.

"There were definitely external pressures," he said.

"Sometimes this decision doesn't lie with you but with other factors. That was definitely part of it."

He didn't elaborate on what the "other factors" were, but one might hazard a guess that Nike, TaylorMade, Omega and Upper Deck may well have felt they merited a little more exposure.

In the meantime, perhaps his newly-married status has helped convince Rory that there's a lot more to life than, as his Twitter profile says, knocking "a little white ball around a field sometimes".

And there's no doubt that his charity work - which first surfaced during a "humbling" humanitarian visit to Haiti a week before that never-to-be-forgotten moment at Congressional - is making an immeasurable difference to countless lives.

"When significant sponsorship deals began to follow my career trajectory, the idea took hold that I could at least begin to consider some philanthropic projects," the man who set up The Rory Foundation in 2013 told Coutts Million Pound Donors Report.

"I was increasingly aware that others were facing challenges and hardships that I, growing up with little to consider than improving my golf game, never had to endure.

"I felt that being able to give something was enormously rewarding and meaningful - a real sense of purpose beyond my sporting life."

Perhaps his stunning new American bride Erica - the PGA employee who famously roused him from an unscheduled and potentially catastrophic lie-in during a Ryder Cup tournament - has helped provide Rory McIlroy with another crucial wake-up call.

Despite his current travails on the fairways and greens, few would bet against the 28-year-old reclaiming the title of the world's top golfer.

In the meantime, he might have to settle for being the most contented one.

Belfast Telegraph


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