To watch Rory McIlroy gaily working his way around Augusta on Tuesday, marching up the 10th fairway absentmindedly eating sweets from a bag, was to be possessed by a question.
Was it really only a month ago that he stalked off the course at Palm Beach halfway through a dismal round, hounded by questions and bereft of answers?
The McIlroy who withdrew from the Honda Classic with no fit excuse was a man “seeing red” whose mind was “all over the place”- his descriptions, not ours.
He looked about as likely to appear on the Sunday leaderboard of the Masters as he was to appear uninvited in your bathroom, telling you about the one per cent cashback you could claim on your water bills.
The prevailing theory was that McIlroy’s dramatic loss of form was a result of his lucrative switch to Nike clubs. It felt at the time like too straightforward an excuse, as his recent resurgence - second in San Antonio last weekend and nine sub-par rounds in his last 11 - has proven. As he said himself on Tuesday: “It’s definitely not the clubs, that’s for sure. That’s what I’ve found out over the past few weeks. It’s more me.”
Yet it is hard to see how the Nike deal, worth an estimated £78 million and dozens of valuable practice days, was not part of the problem.
It was not the change of clubs that appeared to unsettle McIlroy so much as the change of status; a shift in perceptions that might glibly be characterised as Holywood Rory to Hollywood Rory. A player who had spent his whole life as the game’s next big star was suddenly the biggest star of all. The transition precipitated the biggest crisis of his career so far.
Dazzled by the intense scrutiny of his every twitch, encumbered by the dual duties of leading the tour and representing his new sponsors, glitches began to appear in McIlroy’s swing. His head began to dip a fraction; his takeaway began to waver, bringing his downswing too far inside. “When I don’t play my best is when I get into bad habits in my swing,” he said.
The turning point came at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, where he was 11 shots off the lead after two days. Had there been a halfway cut, he would have missed it. Instead, it proved a turning point, a final-day 65 sneaking him into the top 10. The worst was over. The enlightening way in which he analysed key holes at Augusta on Tuesday revealed a mind focused on scoring rather than swinging.
At the heart of McIlroy’s recovery was a fuller recognition of his place in the world; an acceptance of his new reality. It is telling that he chose to cancel a Unicef trip to Haiti in order to play in San Antonio. “Golf is sometimes a selfish sport,” he candidly admitted. “Sometimes you have to do what’s right for yourself. I knew I was letting a lot of people down, but that’s what I needed to do.”
At just 23, McIlroy is reconciling himself with the ideal of being not just a very good golfer, but one of the world’s great athletes, and the brutal compromises that entails. “I haven’t been back [home] for a year, I guess,” he said. “I have no real intention of going back until the Irish Open. I’ll be there for a week and then I’ll be away again. It’s just the way my life is.”
The bloody-minded pursuit of victory is an approach that has been learned rather than intrinsic; Tiger Woods, for example, seemed to be born with it.
But although McIlroy still identifies more with the thrilling caprice of a Mickelson rather than the steady dependency of a Woods, he has realised that the only thing he loves more than playing is winning.
“Would anything less than a win be a disappointment?” he wondered. “Yeah, it would be. Every time you come to Augusta, you’re wanting to win that Green Jacket. Every time that you don’t, it’s another chance missed.” And yet it is his competitive relationship with Nike stable-mate Woods, who has just taken his place as world No 1, that remains the great unknown.
McIlroy’s bold statement before the 2010 Ryder Cup that any European would “fancy his chances” against Woods has given way to a reverence bordering on deference.
“He’s got 14 majors, I’ve got two,” he said on Tuesday. “If I saw myself as a rival to Tiger, I wouldn’t really be doing him much justice.”
Given Woods’ stellar year to date, he remains a worthy favourite. But McIlroy’s recent return to form raises the tantalising prospect of the world’s top two going toe-to-toe on Sunday. And for that reason, it is a development that every golf fan should relish.