For erstwhile world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, this week’s BMW Championship offers the last opportunity to defend one of his four 2012 PGA Tour titles. A win in the third of four FedExCup playoff games would also be his first of the 2013 season.
McIlroy, despite the bye week on tour, moved up a slot over Justin Rose in golf’s rankings on Monday. His fourth-place worldwide position, however, means nothing in the FEC standings, where the two-time major champ sits at No. 41 and needs a strong performance at Conway Farms to grab one of the top-30 spots and advance to next week’s Tour Championship.
The race for the cup and its $10 million payoff resumes Thursday outside Chicago after a fortnight break for the opening of the football season and to give Tiger Woods and the rest of the guys breathers before the remaining two playoff games and upcoming Presidents Cup. Will this finally be the week when last year’s player of the year and dual money-title winner revives his winning ways and puts his lackluster season behind him?
"I don't think there's anything wrong. I've played pretty well at times this year. Five top 10s, and I feel like my game is definitely running in a little bit of form," McIlroy told reporters ahead of the Deutsche Bank Championship, where he finished T47 in an unsuccessful effort to repeat at TPC Boston. "I guess I'm a victim of my own success at times. But I know how well I can play and you guys know how well I can play and I want to get back to that level."
It will be a steep climb for McIlroy, who, last year at this time, had his game on cruise control as he headed to Crooked Stick. He proceeded to sail to his third victory in four tries, a two-shot, 20-under triumph over Lee Westwood and Phil Mickelson, after a final-round 5-under 67 that left the star-studded BMW field in his considerable wake. The victory was also McIlroy's second within a week, after the then-top-ranked golfer secured the Deutsche Bank Championship.
"I just wanted to go out and play as best as I could," McIlroy said before leaving for the 2012 Tour Championship as last year’s favorite to cash the $10 million paycheck. "I knew if I played to my ability that I would win events.
"I didn't think that everything would happen so quickly, but I'm just on a great run at the minute and trying to keep that going for as long as possible."
Back then, McIlroy was on top of the world and primed to cadge player of the year honors after going back-to-back on the PGA Tour for the first time since Tiger Woods accomplished the feat in 2009.
McIlroy was "putting on a show out there," said Woods, who finished three shots off the two-time major champ’s torrid BMW Championship pace. "He's doing the things he needs to do. He's feeling very confident about his game. Right now, he's just really playing well, and he's making a ton of putts."
Alas, that was then, and this is now. Silent are the tongues that wagged about how Tiger’s heir apparent was no longer waiting in the wings. Since then, the Boy Wonder claimed the 2012 PoY award, won more cash than anyone else on the European and PGA Tours, became the shiny new multi-million-dollar face of Nike, took his place (with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki) alongside Woods in the gossip pages, and tumbled from the pinnacle of golf.
This week, the 24-year-old superstar from Northern Ireland enters the penultimate playoff event as something of an afterthought, as pundits ponder whether Woods, Adam Scott, or Phil Mickelson will take his place as golfer of the year. McIlroy has weathered monumental meltdowns like his controversial withdrawal from the Honda Classic, mangled a Nike club or two, and called himself "brain dead" after an 8-over 79 in the opening round of the British Open.
Throughout the turmoil and disappointment, McIlroy has maintained that he’s oh, so close to returning to form. This week’s no-cut contest could help him put a drab 2013 season in the rear-view mirror and move ahead to the Tour Championship.
"All I want to do is just keep trying to improve my position," he said at TPC Boston. "And I'd love to make a big jump this week."
He’ll have to do just that to make it to East Lake.