Early Monday afternoon, Rory McIlroy stood on a tee box at North Carolina’s Quail Hollow golf club looking like the Michelin Man. Wearing a spacesuit, space boots, and (at times) even an astronaut helmet, McIlroy ripped 300-plus yard tee shots using his driver and a “baseball grip” necessitated by the spacesuit’s gloves.
McIlroy posted photos and video to his Instagram story of pal Sergio García and him wearing the suits and carrying their bags through the clubhouse, walking as if they were gravity-less astronauts exploring outer space instead of an Omega-sponsored event. The two were funny and loose (especially Garcia, who was undoubtedly relieved to have the stress of wedding planning behind him). You’d be forgiven for looking at this goofy event and not realizing it was held the Monday of a major tournament week.
It was a weird way to start his PGA Championship prep, but it’s been a pretty weird summer for McIlroy.
Rory finished 2016 as the no. 2 ranked golfer in the world, with four major championships to his name and the chance to complete his career Grand Slam with a win at the 2017 Masters. He started 2017 with two top-10 finishes and added another at the Masters before Garcia snatched the green jacket. He got married in April, signed a new equipment deal with TaylorMade in early May, and seemed poised to tack a few more wins onto his résumé this summer. Things didn’t play out quite so smoothly.
Here’s a look at McIlroy’s 2017 so far:
- Mid-April through early June: McIlroy played in just one PGA event between the Masters and the U.S. Open, didn’t play in any European Tour events, and was forced to withdraw from multiple tournaments due to a rib injury that hampered him since at least January.
- June 16: After missing the cut at the U.S. Open, McIlroy got into a Twitter exchange with former professional golfer and known Twitter fire-starter Steve Elkington. Elkington accused McIlroy of being “bored” with golf, and McIlroy clapped back with his estimated net worth and a screenshot of his Wikipedia awards page.
More like 200mil... not bad for a "bored" 28 year old... plenty more where that came from. pic.twitter.com/R2nigEaee7— Rory McIlroy (@McIlroyRory) June 17, 2017
- June 22-25: McIlroy used three different putters in three days at the Travelers Championship. He tied for 17th.
- July 5: He announced at the Irish Open that he was quitting social media, in part because of the Elkington exchange. "I sort of regretted sending [the tweet] at the end,” he said. “I actually gave my wife Erica my phone and said, 'Change my Twitter password and don't tell me what it is.' So as for the time being, I'm off social media just because of that reason. I don't need to read it. It's stuff that shouldn't get to you and sometimes it does." Since that announcement, he’s tweeted six times, all in reference to golf, fans, or sponsors.
- July 23: McIlroy tied for fourth at the Open Championship—his best performance in a tournament since March—with many credits given to his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, for reframing his attitude after a disastrous start to the tournament’s opening round.
- July 30: A week after that public praise, McIlroy parted ways with Fitzgerald, who had been his caddie since 2008. They’ve been friends for many years, and McIlroy has since said he cut professional ties to “preserve a personal relationship” between the two.
- July 31: Rory hired another friend, Harry Diamond, as his emergency caddie for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he finished T-5. Diamond is expected to serve as his caddie for this weekend’s PGA Championship.
- August 6: Despite all this turnover, McIlroy is the betting favorite to win the PGA Championship.
TL;DR: Here’s a visual representation of McIlroy’s last few months:
In a sport where consistency is prized over everything but winning, McIlroy’s inconsistency has led to more critics than just Elkington.
Between 2010 and 2015, he famously underwent a major physical transformation from his early years on tour. He cut his body fat in half in less than five years and became a known #lifter. After his tournament withdrawals this spring and a missed cut at the U.S. Open, some wondered if he’d exacerbated his rib injury by continuing his exercise routine. Was it officially time to be concerned about McIlroy’s game?
Rory has been on the verge of being golf’s Next Big Thing for six years. He’s juggled the PGA and European tours and fought for the role of “golf’s savior” with Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, and Jordan Spieth ever since his first major victory in 2011. In 2012, McIlroy won four tournaments (including his second major), earned the world no. 1 ranking, landed a Golf Magazine cover, and was voted Player of the Year by the tour’s members. He won his last two majors in 2014 and was again voted Player of the Year, but he hasn’t won a major since.
He responded to critics in June saying that he hadn’t “lifted a weight all year” as he recovered. And despite the missed tournaments and his current winless streak, McIlroy’s been playing great golf lately. He recovered remarkably in last month’s Open Championship where, after going five-over in the first six holes at Royal Birkdale, he went 10-under the rest of the tournament and finished tied for fourth. Last weekend, at the WGC-Bridgestone, he recorded another top-5 finish, an indication that his game is where he wants it to be entering the last major tournament of the year.
And not only is he peaking again at the right time, he’s also playing with pseudo home-field advantage this week. Since 2010, in the seven tournaments that he’s played at Quail Hollow, McIlroy has finished outside the top-10 just once. He’s won there twice, and he’s finished an average of 9.4 strokes under par per tournament. He even holds the course record —shooting a 61 during the 2015 Wells Fargo Championship.
As of Monday, Rory was the Vegas favorite to win this weekend, but he’s up against hungry competition. After winning the Open Championship in July, Jordan Spieth is playing to win his fourth tournament of the year—and oh, yeah, to become the youngest career Grand Slam winner in golf history. Rory’s Thursday grouping with Rickie Fowler and Jon Rahm will also give him a challenge, as both are favorite young tour players looking for their first major victories.
McIlroy has the ability to hold them off, and Quail Hollow has proven to be an ideal space for him to come out ahead. If he manages to win this week and record his first major victory since beating Phil Mickelson by one stroke in this tournament three years ago, we won’t remember this as the summer that he changed clubs in the middle of tournaments, argued with former pros on Twitter, or participated in mock space explorations. We’ll remember it as the summer McIlroy figured his game out and got his major groove back.
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that McIllroy hadn’t won a major since 2012. He won two majors in 2014.