"A career that has lost its way, at least on the level of untrammelled achievement." - Writer James Lawton’s portrait of a 31-year-old Wayne Rooney.
His old signature drumbeat was a dance with the golfing gods so dazzling it made even the best of the rest seem like 50-dollar-a-day extras in the movie of his life.
The bone-deep frustration in rubbernecking as Rory McIlroy again melts under the Broadway lights is fuelled not only by the crushing frustration that what should be the prime years of his sporting life are unspooling as a major tournament wasteland.
There is, too, the vivid, almost unbearable contrast with those days of thunder when he was Atlas placing the world of golf on his shoulders as if it was but a single dimpled Titleist.
McIlroy had four majors banked within months of turning 25, an Irish fly boy retracing The Tiger's flight path to a celestial docking point, one beyond the reach of mere mortals.
Then, there seemed no roof on all a generational talent, one breathing the rarefied air of exceptional achievement sampled only by Nicklaus and Woods, might leave behind as his legacy.
All his life ahead of him yet, already, echoing Mozart’s precocious body of work, within one major of Seve.
In San Francisco last week, Tony Bennett’s golden sunshine declining to shine for Rory, that old knocking-on-the-door-to-eternity radiance might have belonged to another epoch.
Paul McGinley, a commentator who rarely strays beyond the language of diplomacy, issued a withering verdict.
McIlroy was “soft”, “not there mentally”, “looking like he’s going through the motions”, “distracted”, “not with it”.
As regret, frustration and – yes – denial nested in Rory's eyes, a question unthinkable back in 2014 when, to borrow from Chris Martin, seas would rise when he gave the word, hurtled into focus with the force of a 400-yard Bryson DeChambeau drive.
It is the one that asks whether Rory will ever again climb to the top rung of the ladder on Sunday evening at one of the only four tournaments that truly count as a measure of greatness.
Here was the 20th consecutive major canvass where McIlroy could not locate the brushstrokes of genius that were once his thrilling calling card.
He is 31, Rooney's age when Lawton penned those deeply poignant words at the top of the page.
And the debris of disappointment is piling high.
Many will deem any comparisons between a footballer in terminal decline and a golfer who was number one in the world rankings as recently as last month to be absurd.
And, perhaps they are.
For a start, the fall comes much later for athletes who make their living on the world’s manicured fairways.
Nicklaus was 46 when he conquered Augusta for the final time. Tiger, rising above a broken body, shed 43-year-old tears of joy around Amen Corner only last year.
Rory is four years younger than Padraig Harrington was in 2007 when he claimed his first Claret Jug. Heck, Tom Watson almost landed the Open Championship at Turnberry with his 60th birthday looming.
It is ludicrous to suggest McIlroy is some time-expired talent living on the fumes of the past.
He was voted Player of the Year on the PGA Tour in 2019, a season in which he won four times and collected his second Fed-Ex Cup; before lockdown he sizzled as he seized top spot in the world rankings from Brooks Koepka.
Rory has already lived through 106 weeks as the the number one player on the planet; he requires just the placing of a green jacket on his shoulders to become only the sixth player in history to complete the career Grand Slam.
And yet the conviction that he was born to inherit Tiger's throne and become the game's latest sun king, mean he has always been judged by an entirely different standard.
It is true too, that Rooney was setting all time Manchester United scoring records even as Lawton felt compelled to declare the Scouser a shell of his former self.
The late great wordsmith wrote: "[Rooney’s earlier] other existence was so thrilling, no-one could have imagined that he would, at 31…be so widely seen as not so much damaged as time-expired goods.”
McIlroy has lived a life of wonder, but in major tournament play – the yardstick by which the careers of the immortals are measured – the unpalatable truth is that he, too, is damaged goods.
It is not just that he has been unable to lance the boil of the frustration that has infected his psyche in the six years since he swept imperiously to a fourth major title in 38 months.
The aura of a superior talent who would only rarely breathe the air of defeat has been crushed.
Collin Morikawa (23) leads a younger, rampaging band of talents - it also includes Matthew Wolff (21), Vicktor Hovland (22) and Cameron Champ (25) - who are seizing the higher ground on which McIlroy so recently held an apparently unbreakable lease.
Perhaps it is this next generation's fearless strut that prompted Rory to make an alarming declaration as he limped away from Harding Park on Sunday.
"Maybe I'm just not as good as I used to be," was his response when pressed on another week as a major championship afterthought.
Here was the kind of resigned rhetoric which would once have been as unthinkable as one of his drives failing to pass the ladies' tee.
Even if it was delivered with a hint a sarcasm, that such a consideration ever found a way to gatecrash his thoughts, suggests, at the very least, a wounded psyche.
McIlroy has found as many ways to come up short and illustrate that something is fundamentally broken as he has clubs in his bag.
Infamously and devastatingly, his chances of Open Championship glory on home soil had perished by the time he walked off the very first green at Portrush last July.
In Patrick Reed’s slipstream at Augusta entering the final round in 2018, he capsized against his Ryder Cup foe, a final round 74 relegating him to the role of also ran.
At Harding Park on Friday, there was a familiar theme: A burst of brilliance, in this case four birdies in a row to surge into contention, followed by one cataclysmic self-destructive hole (this time a triple bogey) that ended his prospects all of 48 hours before Morikawa would so dazzlingly seize the day.
The American's 293-yard drive to seven feet to set up a Wanamaker Trophy-clinching eagle on 16 was the kind of decisive, awe-inspiring sword thrust that was McIlroy's signature flourish in those days when he was as cocksure as a matador applying the killing incision.
Too often, these days the sunshine of his personality is clouded by doubt, the divine shot making undone by self-destructive errors. Under pressure last week, the trends of putting that lacked conviction and unreliable wedge play resurfaced.
Some who know and admire him believe he needs stronger voices at his shoulder, speakers of home truths rather than those content to dote obsequiously at his altar.
McIlroy has missed five cuts at the majors since 2016. And while there have been ten Top 10s since he won his fourth Grand Slam, most have been secured with a final round charge from off the pace long afterhis chances of winning had been lost on the wind.
In interviews – where he is always gracious – there are some confounding nuggets.
Perhaps he is speaking an unvarnished truth when he insists there are more important things in the world than major titles. A rounded world view and his essential decency shine through in those long-form interviews he has granted to Paul Kimmage.
Yet conspiracy theorists see in his declaration that golf is not his alpha and omega a desperate attempt to create an illusion of control.
Six years without a major title, thrashing in the dark far from the business end of the PGA Championship, limping home 11 shots adrift of Morikawa in a share of 33rd, all of these things shatter that illusion.
The suspicion here, even if he declines to say it out loud, is that Rory is tormented by his tumble into the major void.
McIlroy's natural-born talent means he will never resemble a 50-dollar-a-day extra, but on the level of untrammeled achievement, on the majors stage, his is a career that has lost his way.
Can he rediscover the flight path to the stars, an elusive trajectory gifted only to a tiny band of immortals, a route his younger self traced with effortless authority?
The answer to this supreme challenge of his sporting life will determine whether McIlroy's likeness is forever chiselled onto the game's Mount Rushmore or if his climb to eternity splutters and stalls a rung or two below the golfing heavens.