It started the following week at the WGC – Cadillac Championship at Doral when McIlroy played the front nine in 40. No one noticed because the Blue Monster was a beast that day. After a short break, McIlroy ran off a string of top-10s in the Shell Houston Open, the Masters, the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow and The Players Championship. On paper, the results were solid. Closer inspection, however, revealed a troubling trend. McIlroy took himself out of the hunt on Friday at Augusta National when he shot 40 on the back nine on his way to a 77. He got off to a great start in the Wells Fargo Championship until he made back-to-back double bogeys on the front nine at Quail Hollow and shot 40 to fall out of contention with a 76. McIlroy had only made the cut once at The Players Championship before, and he made it this time with no shortage of drama. Again on Friday, he shot a 42 on the front nine and made a birdie on the 18th to narrowly get to the weekend. His episode with “Freaky Friday” was not quite finished, but when McIlroy headed back to Europe for the BMW Championship, the most significant day of the week turned out to be a Wednesday.
McIlroy began 2014 with a stunning announcement on Twitter: She said yes. That would be Wozniacki, his girlfriend of more than two years. They were engaged in Sydney ahead of Wozniacki’s first Grand Slam event of the tennis season at the Australian Open. McIlroy considered it his “first victory” of 2014. But it ended in a fashion that was no less shocking. Just a few days after the couple sent out wedding invitations, McIlroy called off the engagement with a phone call to Wozniacki and a statement to the press early in the week of the flagship event on the European Tour. He blamed himself for not realizing until the invitations went out that he was not ready for marriage. In a subdued press conference at Wentworth, he said he would be concentrating on his golf and would only answer questions about his game. Coming off a year in which he split with his management company and was criticized in some circles — Nick Faldo was one — for changing all his equipment at once, this appeared to be another off-course setback.
Except that it turned out to be just the beginning. McIlroy was seven shots behind going into the final round when he closed with a six-under 66 for a one-shot victory. “I guess when I got inside the ropes this week, it was a little bit of a release, and I was on my own and doing what I do best, which is playing golf,” he said. “It’s obviously been a week of very mixed emotions, but I’m sitting here looking at this trophy going, ‘How the hell, how did it happen this week?’ But it did.”
Equipped with his most significant win since the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai to close out the 2012 season, McIlroy got back into his Friday mode. After opening with a 63 at the Memorial, McIlroy came unglued in the second round. He hit into the trees twice and made double bogey. He went into the water and made double bogey. And then he made his third straight double bogey by double-hitting a wedge. He shot 43 on the back nine (he began on No. 10) and shot 78 to give up a lead he never got back. It was his fourth straight PGA Tour event where he had at least 40 over nine holes, all of them on Friday.
“These little runs I’m getting on where it gets away from me, I was able to avoid that last week (at Wentworth). Not so much this week,” he said.
He had one more episode. After missing the cut at the Irish Open, McIlroy tuned up for the Open Championship by going to the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open. He was on fine form with a 64 in the opening round at Royal Aberdeen. And then the clock turned to Friday. McIlroy shot a 78 and narrowly made the cut. It was the sixth time in his last eight events that he had a nine-hole score of 40 or higher. It was so bizarre that when McIlroy began the Open with a 66 at Royal Liverpool to take the lead, the talk was more about what would happen on Friday than the prospect of his name on the claret jug.
But it was on that Friday that his year, and his dominance, took shape. McIlroy began Friday with a bogey, and you could almost hear the whispers in the gallery of “Here we go again.” Not so fast. He made four birdies in a six-hole stretch around the turn. He made three more birdies over the final four holes. He had another 66 to build a four-shot lead over Dustin Johnson. And he was on his way. He stretched that lead to six shots after Saturday, and no one got within two shots of him in the final round.
If there was a moment that defined the year of McIlroy, it was late Saturday afternoon at Hoylake. Right when Fowler was starting to get close, McIlroy took off like a rocket with a pair of eagles on the 16th and 18th holes. The final eagle was pure class. He hit a five iron and held his pose, knowing it had no imperfections. He crouched as it descended and lightly pumped his fist when it settled 10 feet away. And when he holed the putt, instead of a wild celebration or roundhouse fist pump, he stiffened his back and looked out defiantly at the grandstands packed with fans who clearly appreciated this performance. No smile. Just a look.
Jim Furyk was 10 shots behind and had seen that look — and that game — before. “He’s just so explosive. He won the U.S. Open by eight shots. He obviously doesn’t have any issue as the front-runner, and has no issue trying to extend that lead, much like Tiger used to.”
That began a stretch of golf not seen since Woods at his peak. In three successive tournaments, McIlroy won two majors and a World Golf Championship, and he won them in three different manners. The Open was a wire-to-wire coronation. The WGC – Bridgestone Invitational was a stirring comeback. The PGA Championship was a free-for-all in which McIlroy had control, lost it, and regained it with a three wood into the 10th green at Valhalla for an eagle and a nine iron from a fairway bunker on the 17th hole to 10 feet for a birdie that put the final major of the year back into his grasp. Most significant about Firestone was that it gave McIlroy his first World Golf Championship, allowing him to join a group of 12 other players who have won majors and a WGC event. It also put him back to No. 1 in the world for the first time since March of 2013.
Much like Woods used to reduce Ernie Els to runner-up status in big events, Sergio Garcia was second fiddle to McIlroy. The Spaniard was the only one to seriously challenge him at Hoylake, and Garcia had a three-shot lead going into the final day at Firestone. Such was the explosiveness of McIlroy that the lead was gone in three holes. McIlroy punched an eight iron out of the trees and up the slope to three feet on the first hole. He smashed a four iron onto the green at the par-five second for a two-putt birdie, and then he holed an eight-foot birdie on the third. Garcia couldn’t stop him. “Everybody saw it. He played very, very well. He drove the ball miles and very, very straight for the most part,” Garcia said.
McIlroy led the World Money List for the second time in three years with $10,526,012.
Comparisons are inevitable in golf, and with McIlroy, there was only one — Woods. When he won the PGA Championship, McIlroy joined an awesome triumvirate in golf by capturing his fourth career major at 25 or younger. The others were Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Jones, three of the greatest in the game. His record after 2014 still paled compared with Woods. At age 25, McIlroy had 14 victories around the world, four majors and one World Golf Championship. When Woods was 25, he had 34 wins around the world and seven majors, including the career Grand Slam. Even so, the kid had the well-rounded game, and he was living up to the hype, minus a few mini-slumps here and there. Most impressive was his driving, as Garcia witnessed at Firestone. Geoff Ogilvy was asked at Valhalla if he thought McIlroy had the greatest combination of power and accuracy off the tee since Greg Norman. Ogilvy said it was the best since Woods. “Tiger did everything so well in 2000 that his driving never got any attention,” he said.
For Woods, the conversation shifted from what he once did instead of what he was capable of doing. Coming off a five-win season, there were small indications in retrospect what the immediate future held for the greatest player of his generation when he had back pain at The Barclays. And there was immediate feedback on what kind of year was in store at the Farmers Insurance Open. As the defending champion at Torrey Pines, on a course he had won eight times, Woods never broke 70 in three rounds — that’s right, three rounds — and missed the 54-hole cut for the first time in his career. Then, it was on to the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, where he had won twice and only once had finished out of the top five. He tied for 41st.
That looked to be nothing more than a slow start, especially when he arrived in south Florida for the Honda Classic and fired off a 65 in the third round that at least got him within shouting range of McIlroy. But if there was one day that epitomized his season, it was Sunday at PGA National. Woods was five over through his round when Luke Guthrie noticed Woods bending over gingerly to get his tee from the ground or his ball from the cup. After 13 holes, Woods walked over to Guthrie and told him he was done. He rode out to the parking lot, switched out of his shoes and was gone. The last time Woods withdrew from a tournament in the middle of a round because of injury was at Doral in 2012. He won at Bay Hill in his next start and was on his way back to No. 1. Not this time.
Woods played the following week at Doral and was a factor for the first time all year. He made eight birdies on a tough course for a 66 in the third round to get within three shots of the lead, and in the penultimate group. But his back injury flared up after an awkward stance for a shot out of the bunker on No. 6, and Woods grimaced his way around the rest of the way. He didn’t make a birdie in the final round for the first time in his PGA Tour career, and his 78 was his worst Sunday score ever. By the end of the year, the tie for 25th in the Cadillac Championship would be his second-best result of 2014. The best finish was the Hero World Challenge. He tied for 17th in an 18-man field.
The road to the Masters suddenly got very bumpy for Woods, and then it came to a dead end. Even as pundits were debating his fitness for the first major of the year, Woods surprised everyone with an announcement that he had back surgery on March 31 in Utah to relieve a pinched nerve. The process was referred to as a “microdiscectomy,” and it kept Woods from Augusta National for the first time since 1994, when he was still in high school.
He wound up missing the U.S. Open, too, and then came another surprise. Right when the debates were stirring about whether he would take the rest of the year off, Woods decided to play the Quicken Loans National at Congressional, a tournament that his foundation runs and one that had a new sponsor. The idea was to test his health and shake off some rust. In his eyes, he accomplished both. He had rounds of 74-75 to miss the cut, though he was excited to be pain-free and said he was able to swing the driver at full speed without worry. Those silly mistakes that cost him so many strokes could easily be corrected before the Open, he said, and when he opened with a 69 at Hoylake, it looked like the recovery was right on schedule.
He never broke par the rest of the week. He finished at six-over 294, matching his highest score in the Open. He finished in 69th place, his lowest position after 72 holes in any major. And he wound up 23 shots behind McIlroy, by six shots his largest deficit in the majors. Woods didn’t sound overly concerned. Neither did Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson, who had been saying all along that he wanted Woods on the American team provided he was playing well and was healthy. At the time, only one of those appeared to be true. And even that didn’t last.
Two weeks later, on another course (Firestone) where Woods had won eight times, he again was teeing off in the final round at the Bridgestone Invitational before the leaders had even arrived for lunch. On the second hole, Woods faced a shot from the top bank of a bunker, and then he hopped down into the sand after the strike. Something jarred his lower back, and that familiar image was back — Woods walking with discomfort, the occasional grimace and the early departure. This time, he could barely tie his shoes at his car as he prepared to leave. And this time, there was serious concerns he could even make it to the PGA Championship, much less be a viable pick for the Ryder Cup.
In one of the more bizarre scenes of the golfing year, the center of attention at Valhalla was an empty parking space reserved for Tiger Woods. He finally showed up Wednesday afternoon, in time to get in nine holes of practice on a course where he won the PGA Championship 14 years earlier. He had never prepared so little for a major. Expectations were never so low, and Woods lived up to them. He opened with a 74, his lone birdie coming on a chip-in. Woods looked so fragile that he even got sympathy from Phil Mickelson, who said he thought his longtime rival played with heart. The next day, Woods rallied for a 74 and missed the cut by five shots. And a week later, he removed any suspense by announcing he was removing his name from consideration as a Ryder Cup captain’s pick.
Because he had started only seven PGA Tour events and finished 72 holes in two of them, he was not remotely close to making the FedExCup Playoffs. That was the end of his season, and it was forgettable due to the injuries. He played only six rounds in the majors and broke par one time. He failed to qualify for the Ryder Cup team for only the second time in his career. His official earnings on the PGA Tour were $108,275 — Woods made more than that his first four PGA Tour events as a pro in 1996. And he announced another long layoff, this time to make sure his body (and his back) were strong enough to be like the Tiger of old instead of an old Tiger Woods. A new vocabulary entered his vernacular, words like “speed” and “explosiveness.” The Playoffs went on without him, as did the Ryder Cup and the start to another PGA Tour season.
Woods targeted his return to the Hero World Challenge, his holiday event with a new title sponsor and a new golf course. It moved to Isleworth, where Woods lived for the first 16 years of his PGA Tour career. He has played Isleworth more than any other course. He once shot 59 before it was lengthened and toughened. In this return, his tee shot went left into a neighbor’s yard and out of bounds. He ended his year in a tie for last place. At least he had his health. “I made some progress. I hadn’t played in four months and I’m in absolutely no pain, which is nice,” Woods said. “To be able to go all out on some of these drives like I did this week really reinforces what I’m doing is the right thing for my body.”