Since Rory McIlroy lifted the US Open trophy at Congressional last June, he has played in 13 European Tour events, finishing outside the top-five on only two occasions.
Indicative of the extent to which both he and his game have become accustomed to the stresses and strains of a globetrotting schedule, it’s a run of form that has propelled the Northerner to within a single tournament of supplanting Luke Donald at the summit of the world rankings.
That such an outcome has been burdened with a sense of the inevitable, however, that consensus opinion should judge it nothing more than the logical realisation of a colossal talent, says as much about the condition of the game at-large as it does the 23-year-old’s impressive development.
Indeed, ever since a pesky fire hydrant brought the reign of one Eldrick Woods to a grinding, gyrating halt a little over two years ago, media and fans alike have searched in vain for a successor.
For golf is a sport obsessed with hierarchies. It ranks its players, tournaments, even its venues, compulsively. It’s a tendency taken to bloated, pathological extremes by season-long statfests like the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai, but one is capable of discerning its influence week-in-week-out on the PGA Tour, as the hefty burden of History (with a capital H) is dragged from one coastal resort to another.
Is Phil better than Tiger? Is Luke Donald a worthy No1? Will Lee Westwood ever nab a major?
All of this, the endless search for reliable context, is fueled by the desire for a clearly-defined elite. In simple terms, the sport needs champions, fearless multiple winners; they help link the golfing present to its mythic past.
McIlroy sets hopes and expectations soaring because his balance of affability, self-awareness and smooth-swinging elegance is suggestive of something timeless. Like his idol, the aforementioned Woods, his is a persona robust and televisual enough to support the dreams and aspirations of a sporting superstructure.
A perfect storm of marketable qualities, it’s suggested that he alone – as opposed to say, Martin Kaymer (too German, too ruthless) or Rickie Fowler (overhyped, contrived) – can become the pole star about which the Tour orients itself.
But to what extent are our hopes for the tyro at odds with the reality of his potential?
His game is defined by a nearly unrivaled capacity of overwhelm golf courses, and to look serenely untroubled while doing it. No grand displays of petulance, no helicoptered clubs or silent acts of violence.
As seductive a combination as that sounds (intimidating, if you happen to be an opponent), McIlroy’s maturity – a virtue for which he’s often lauded – places him at odds with the best to have played game. Equanimity, a close relative of diffidence, has never held the key to realising competitive potential.
From Seve to Jack, Arnie to Tiger, great players – those who come closest to justifying an already world-beating talent – have always been defined by their resilience: a refusal to accept defeat, no matter how honourable.
In golfing terms, it’s a trait that manifests itself as an ability to pitch and putt under pressure, to rescue a card or result by force of self-belief alone. A product of the murky subconscious, it lies beyond the remit of swing gurus and sports psychologists. It’s a skill that cannot be taught.
Somewhat troublingly, it’s also one McIlroy has yet to exhibit.
Of his five tournament victories, two have come courtesy of a final-round dogfight. A remarkable record, perhaps, but one undermined somewhat by a pair of major championship implosions, aswell as somewhere in the region of fifteen top-3 finishes and a further 30 top-tens.
The notion that McIlroy is somehow beyond the taming of his profligacy, an unwitting victim of psychological flaws beyond his understanding, is of course ludicrous. But if his desire – or lack of it – can already be considered a weakness, how likely is it that even greater wealth and acclaim will inspire the Northerner to seek a place in history commensurate with talent?