There has been a lot of water under the bridge for Rory McIlroy since he pitched up at Wentworth four years ago, struggling to transform progress with his lucrative Nike clubs and ball into a first victory of 2014 as well as dealing with the fallout of a pre-wedding break-up with Caroline Wozniacki.
Wentworth’s West Course in the Surrey stockbroker belt had not been kind to him in six previous visits to the BMW PGA Championship, the European Tour’s premier tournament. There had been three missed cuts and a tie for 48th on the record books when McIlroy returned that May with only one top-10 finish, a tie for fifth five years previously.
The previous year had been the Northern Irishman’s worst as a professional, absent of victories until a November success at the Australian Open, and his annual trip to Wentworth had not lasted into the weekend.
And much like this week, McIlroy found himself preparing for the European showpiece badly in need of an upturn. He had spoken candidly and admirably of getting cold feet in his personal life, calling off the nuptials with his Danish fiancee after sending out the invitations and how he cherished his time inbetween the fairway ropes as an escape from the pressures of sporting superstardom.
All he needed was the success to go with it and that Sunday at Wentworth provided both a long-awaited victory and the impetus to kick on and deliver the season of his young career. Starting the final round seven shots behind 54-hole leader Thomas Bjorn, McIlroy carded a closing 66 to edge out fellow Irishman Shane Lowry by a stroke to claim the win.
It kick-started a glorious run of form that saw the 25-year-old land The Open Championship at Hoylake, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone in Akron, Ohio and the PGA Championship at Valhalla in successive starts before helping Europe to an amazing Ryder Cup victory that September in the Miracle at Medinah.
McIlroy is hardly suffering right now. He’s been happily married for 13 months to American Erica Stoll, for one thing, and he has a big victory under his belt already in 2018, thanks to his charge to success at Bay Hill in March. Yet even he has admitted he needs “a spark” to reignite his campaign following the massive downer he experienced on the final day at Augusta National, where he failed to fire and slipped out of contention for the Masters having played in the final group with overnight leader and eventual champion Patrick Reed.
It highlighted the inconsistency of McIlroy’s form this season but is Wentworth the place to provide the catalyst and set the Holywood hero back on track for a first major championship victory since that annus mirabilis of 2014?
There are three major titles still to play for with the US Open next up at Shinnecock Hills on New York’s Long Island next month, a return to Carnoustie for The Open in July, where he made his debut in the oldest tournament in golf, and then on to Bellerive in St Louis for the final shot and the PGA Championship.
Winning at Wentworth this weekend would set the 29-year-old up very nicely indeed at this pivotal point in the season, providing the momentum to slingshot into Shinnecock, Carnoustie and beyond, just as it did four years ago.
“I’d love to be able to do something like that again,” McIlroy said as he made his final preparations at Wentworth ahead of Thursday’s opening round. “I’ve got a busy summer coming up. There’s a lot of big tournaments to play in, still got three major championships and the Ryder Cup and everything else. So yeah, maybe this could be the spark that gets that all going again.”
McIlroy, though, does have a love-hate relationship with Wentworth, underlined by a missed cut on his title defence in 2015 and his decision not to play in the BMW a year later, instead playing the corresponding PGA Tour event, while injury prevented him from competing in 2017.
It means this week will be the world number eight’s first chance to play a course toughened up over the last couple of years, which means finding Wentworth’s fairways is even more necessary than before and error-free golf is essential to success.
Naturally McIlroy has given his seal of approval to the course developments and he appears in bouyant mood after a week working with swing coach Michael Bannon back hom in Florida, a very good sign given Wentworth is a test of temperament as much as technique.
The spark has been missing since that final day at the Masters. With a $7 million purse in the first Rolex Series tournament of the season on the European Tour and the big beasts of the PGA Tour still not convinced it is worth a pre-Memorial Day trip across the pond, this is an ideal opportunity for Rory to strut his stuff.
BEST OF THE REST
Who is going to give 8/1 tournament favourite McIlroy a run for the lion’s share of that $7m Rolex Series prize fund at the BMW PGA Championship this week?
ALEX NOREN – 12/1
Defending champion Alex Noren of Sweden makes his first start of the season on European soil and will have great memories of his closing-round 62 last May to come from seven behind and beat Francesco Molinari by two shots. After missed cuts at the Masters and Wells Fargo, the world number 19 got back on track with a T17 at The Players last time out.
BRANDEN GRACE – 12/1
The South African world number 33 finished T9 in last year’s BMW PGA and has the ball-striking attributes to avoid Wentworth’s considerable pitfalls. With three top-15 finishes in five appearances, last year’s top-10 saw him hit 52 greens in regulation, second best in the tournament that week behind Graeme Storm.
PAUL DUNNE – 25/1
The Irishman makes his second appearance in the BMW PGA after a rock solid debut 12 months ago when he finished with a fourth-round 69 and a top-30 finish on a course which suits his great short game. In fine form of late, the reigning British Masters champion was runner-up at the Spanish Open and won the GolfSixes for Ireland with Gavin Moynihan.