Nearly 12 months ago, one of the English broadsheets ran an interview with Paul McGinley, calling on McIlroy to get a grip or risk being left behind by the then top three in the world — Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, and Jordan Spieth.
“Time for Rory to step up or risk becoming Ringo of golf’s fab four,” rang the headline in The Daily Telegraph, with a mock-up picture of the then World No4 McIlroy crossing the zebra crossing a la the Beatles’ Abbey Road cover.
McIlroy was stung by the comparison and reminded the world at Troon that he was the one with the four majors, not Spieth, Day, or Johnson.
Fast forward 12 months and none of the four have managed to add to their major haul with McIlroy back at fourth in the world behind Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, and Spieth, still battling to play himself into form after seven stop-start months that have been disrupted by a rib injury.
Asked at Portstewart yesterday if his fall to fourth bothered him, McIlroy’s memory kicked into overdrive.
“Back to Ringo,” he beamed, provoking laughter among the scribes. ”Does it bother me? Yeah, look, it bothers me I’m not where I want to be. But I feel like there’s been a couple of things that have been out of my control this year that have led to that with the injuries and stuff. Like I’ve said all along, winning golf tournaments and playing well takes care of the rankings.”
Winning requires a hot streak and McIlroy’s hottest streak of the year came not on the course, but on Twitter after he missed the cut at the US Open and foolishly responded to some goading from former US PGA champion Steve Elkington.
“Rory is so bored playing golf...without Tiger the threshold is prolly 4 majors with 100mill in bank,” the Australian tweeted.
McIlroy hit back to remind Elkington it was “more like 200mil”, adding “not bad for a ‘bored’ 28 year old... plenty more where that came from.”
He almost immediately regretted responding and has banned himself from Twitter for the time being.
But what provoked his outrage was that a fellow professional could not understand his inner battle to find his game and his desire to do so.
“It’s not what was said, it was who said it,” said McIlroy. “Anyone that’s been in that environment should realise how hard golf is at times, and I think that’s the thing that got to me more than anything else.
“If it was written by a member of the media or something, I could let it slide, because I can sort of say to myself, ‘They don’t really know how it is and they don’t know what you have to deal with’.
“But a former player that has won a major and been successful; that’s sort of why it got to me and that’s why I sort of retaliated a little bit.”
McIlroy’s response spoke volumes about his desire to get back to No 1 in the world.
He doesn’t just want to start winning majors again, he wants to dominate the sport the way Woods ruled golf in his pomp.
After changing putter three times in as many days at the Travelers Championship in his last start, he’s settled on the TaylorMade TP Juno blade for now and tried to simplify his technique.
His goal is to win The Open at Royal Birkdale and the US PGA at Quail Hollow next month — a venue where he has already won twice and lost in a playoff.
In short, he believes it’s ‘Rory Time’ again now that none of the three players ahead of him in the world rankings are dominating, and there’s no better place to start than by becoming the first man to successfully defend the Irish Open since Colin Montgomerie in 1997.
“You look at DJ at the start of the year; went on a tear, and then he had that unfortunate fall at the Masters, and he’s had the birth of his second child,” said McIlroy. “But he’s not been able to get that form sort of back.
“You look at someone like Jason Day who at the end of ’15 and start of last year was No1 in the world by a stretch and his form dipped off a bit, as well.
“I think we were spoiled in the 2000s with Tiger and being able to keep that [dominance]. There’s been guys that have been able to play that level of golf for six months, nine months maybe, but not being able to keep that form for six years, seven years, eight years.
“I think that’s testament to just how driven and how good Tiger was. I’d love to get to that point and being able to keep that for a long time.”
McIlroy pointed out that dips in form are only natural for golfers and part and parcel of the journey. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t driven, as Elkington hinted, to forget about the $200m in the bank and dominate the game.
The killer instinct Woods showed has not come easy to McIlroy, but he still aspires to becoming a silent assassin of the fairways.
“It’s not about not playing your best,” he said. “It’s realising it’s OK to be a winner. It’s OK to have that mindset and it’s OK to be a little selfish when it comes to that stuff.
“I guess when it really sort of hit home with me was like when Tiger had the whole scandal thing in ’09 and ’10 and he came back, and obviously there was a lot of talk going on.
“But he got into contention at Augusta when he came back, and people loved it, and people loved that he might win and people loved that he was a winner.
“And after everything went down, I was like, people like winners. People like people that are successful, and it’s OK to be one of those people.
“It’s OK to have that ruthless streak, and that’s sort of when it just sort of hit home with me. You don’t have to feel guilty about it. You don’t have to feel like you’re selfish or you’re better.
“It’s ‘you want to win’. That’s the reason we practise and we work hard, is because you want to win golf tournaments and hopefully put your name in the history books. It’s OK to have that mindset.”
McIlroy has been a professional now for nine years, nine months, and 16 days but while he’s won four majors already, the 28-year old wants the next decade to be of Tiger-esque proportions.
“It’s nearly my 10th year as a pro, and I feel like I’ve got not just another 10 years, but the next 10 years is where I really want to start to make hay and win a lot of tournaments and be in contention in a lot of majors,” he said.
“I’m hitting the prime of my career now and I’d love to be able to get on a sustained run like Tiger did back then. It will take a lot of work, a lot of drive, a lot of practice, but I’m willing to do that.
“Right now, I feel like I’m in with a group of guys that could all have a chance to be No1 in the world or the best player in the world and hopefully over these next few years, I can maybe separate myself.”