His PGA Championship victory on Sunday night under Valhalla’s dark and brooding skies had made the world number one a four-time Major winner at the age of 25 to put him in the company of fellow young but high achievers, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus.
He had become the first man since Pádraig Harrington in 2008 to win back-to-back majors, emulating his compatriot’s Open and PGA double at Birkdale and Oakland Hills, and he had also matched Woods’s triple crown of 2000 and 2006 in winning The Open, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and PGA in consecutive starts.
That ticked a lot of boxes for a player who had struggled with his swing and his mental approach to the game throughout 2013 but in golf, like all sports, he who stands still slips backwards and with the ink barely dry on a winner’s cheque for $1.8 million (€1.343m) McIlroy was already modifying his targets with the immediate goal a career grand slam of Majors that a Masters victory next April would bring.
Yet even though that would draw him level in terms of Major victories with the late Seve Ballesteros and the very much alive Phil Mickelson and gain him access to an elite club containing Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods as the only men to win all four of the major championships, McIlroy on Sunday night appeared to be honing in on Nick Faldo’s total of six Majors as the next meaningful go-to point.
“Joining Seve and Phil is going to be huge,” McIlroy said. “I mean, hopefully I can get there at some point and then turn my attention to becoming the most successful European ever and trying to catch Faldo. There’s a lot of goals on the horizon. I’m just trying to take it one step at a time.
“There’s only two active players in this generation who that have more Majors than me and that’s Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
“I’ve drawn level with Ernie Els. I’ve drawn level with Vijay Singh, I’ve drawn level with Raymond Floyd.
“If not already, they are names that’ll be in the Hall of Fame. I’ve put my name beside theirs already at the age of 25 so it’s pretty lofty company.
“It’s something that I’m just going to have to come to terms with in a way. I mean, I was happy being a two-time Major championship coming into this year, and all of a sudden I’m a four-time Major champion and going for the career Grand Slam at Augusta in 291 days (it was actually 242 days from Sunday) or whatever it is; not that I’m counting.
“It’s just been an incredible run of golf, and I just couldn’t be more proud of myself or happier with where my game’s at.”
Repeatedly stating he “might not have another summer like this” in his golfing career, McIlroy is careful not to present the supreme confidence and absolute belief in his abilities as the sort of bravado that lesser lights such as American Patrick Reed have been ridiculed for.
With McIlroy, though, there is plenty of foundation for him to be talking of passing milestones.
Ballesteros and Mickelson are greats of the game but it is not arrogance that drives the Holywood golfer to look at their records as stopping points on a route to greater feats.
He has shown with his golf of the last couple of months that when he is in form he is more than capable of winning in all manner of ways, from the front like last month’s Open, coming from behind like the WGC-Bridgestone when he hunted down Sergio Garcia, or in a barnstorming scrap on the back nine that delivered victory on Sunday over Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson.
And, worryingly for his contemporaries, that has further armed the Irishman for future success in the Majors.
“I was asked in the interview room (Saturday) night if I was in a dogfight would it be the most satisfying and I said ‘no’ because they’re all satisfying and all Majors are sort of equal,” McIlroy said. “But saying that, in the way I won today, I know I can win like this.
“I was standing on that 10th fairway three behind and knowing that I can come back from that, that I could shoot 32 on the back nine of a Major and win, that’s something that will stand to me for the rest of my career.
“So satisfaction that I won and joy that I’ve just been able to keep this run of form going.
“I said at the Open Championship that I wanted to just keep moving forward. I didn’t want that to be just the end of the season for me.
“I wanted more and I was able to back that victory up with a win at the Bridgestone. Then to come to Valhalla and do it all over again. To win three big tournaments in a row like that is very satisfying.”
McIlroy will take nothing for granted on his road to greatness.
He has seen the career unravel of one of his idols, Tiger Woods, felled by his now fragile body and stalled at 14 Majors for the past six years and consumed by his increasingly desperate attempts to surpass Nicklaus’s record total of 18.
And he is determined not to make the same mistakes.
“I think I’ve got to take it one small step at a time. I think the two next realistic goals are the career Grand Slam, and trying to become the most successful European player ever.
“Obviously the career Grand Slam coming up at Augusta in eight months’ time or whatever it is, they are the next goals.
“And hopefully, when I achieve those, I can start to think about other things. But right now, that’s what my focus is... and hopefully in time, if I can do that, then I can move on and set different goals.”
The sky’s the limit for McIlroy, one step at a time.
The Barclays, Ridgewood CC
Deutsche Bank Championship, TPC, Boston
BMW Championship, Cherry Hills CC
Tour Championship, East Lake Golf Club
Ryder Cup, Gleneagles