When he was 21 years old, he looked to be ready to take the first step toward golf immortality in Augusta by winning the Masters. Through 63 holes, it was McIlroy's tournament. The youngster had to be seeing green. Instead, he imploded on the back nine with a meltdown that would have made Roy McAvoy in Tin Cup blush.
McIlroy could have easily stormed off the course. It would have been surmised as just a kid being a kid. Hell, Tiger Woods still gets away with it, and it's just "Tiger being Tiger." Yet, McIlroy, still a kid, took his lumps like a man in one of the most humanizing postgame interviews you'll ever see.
"It's very disappointing what happened today," he told CBS' Peter Kostis after that 2011 Masters in which he shot an 80 in that final round. "But hopefully it will build a little bit of character as well."
Or, put another way, sometimes you have to learn how to lose before you can learn how to win.
McIlroy didn't break through for the first time on Sunday at the PGA Championship. He did that last year at Congressional when he ran away with the U.S. Open just two months after the Masters meltdown. But what he did on Sunday in South Carolina suggests that McIlroy may very well be the best player in the world right now.
That is, of course, when he puts it all together like he did in a magnificent round on Sunday. It's been an up-and-down year for McIlroy, with the emphasis on the "down" part. But when the record is written on McIlroy's 2012 season, it will say the same thing it did in 2011: major tournament champion.
That's what it's all about, isn't it? No one sits here and when looking at Woods' career remarks about how many FedEx Cups or player of the year awards he's won. It's all about the major championships. Overall wins are nice and all, but golf greatness is and always will be measured in green jackets, U.S. Open trophies, Claret Jugs and Wanamaker trophies.
McIlroy has now taken two of those home in consecutive years. Only five players have taken home two majors at a younger age, and Woods is not one of them.
The pride of Northern Ireland, like Woods more than a decade earlier, continues to show the ability to have no regard for the rest of the field. He has that killer instinct, an attitude that can't be taught or bought. In his two major tournament wins, McIlroy has won by a combined 16 strokes. Perhaps that was one of the lessons learned on that April afternoon in Georgia last season. Instead of trying to sit on the lead, McIlroy has recently shown the newfound ability to step on the field's throat on the way to winning.
Perhaps the best part about following McIlroy's career thus far has been the grace and humility with which he's carried himself. He has shown the ability to conduct himself in a way that respects the game not only in defeat (like at the Masters last year), but also in victory. McIlroy seems to thoroughly enjoy the game of golf, as opposed to only finding joy in winning golf tournaments. You can bet there's a huge difference.
The comparisons to Woods are obvious and predictable, but also justified. Woods' career canvas is still a work in progress, but it's also a pretty lofty measuring stick. At just 23 years old, McIlroy is already staking his claim to make us forget about Woods' early-career dominance.
That's not to say that McIlroy will eventually surpass Woods in terms of career accolades. It's probably even less likely that he'll go on a run like Woods did at the turn of the century in which he seemed to win every golf tournament he found his name on the leaderboard for.
We obviously don't know what's next for McIlroy, and we know even less about what his resume will look like when it's all said and done. What we do know, for now at least, is that he's a multiple-time major winner. That alone puts him in elite golf company.
And knowing what we already know about McIlroy, it's probably pretty to safe to assume he's far from done winning tournaments. Luckily, we'll all be able to watch him do so along the way.