Life Stuff Behind Him, McIlroy Eyes Pantheon

It’s daunting enough in one’s middle age to deal with lawyers, business deals and shattered romantic relationships. If Rory McIlroy has survived his trials of fire in his 20s, then I’m liking his odds of winning more in the golfing world than just a Ladbrokes bet for his father, who proudly wagered in 2004 at 500/1 odds that his son would win the British Open within 10 years — and is cashing in now at $300,000 plus.

Closer to the point, might we be watching the giant early footsteps of an all-time maestro?

In a numbing, wire-to-wire victory at Royal Liverpool, McIlroy reintroduced himself as a global sensation not seen in those parts since the Beatles. I don’t care if he couldn’t name any of the Fab Four when asked by ESPN, painfully spitting out, “I was going to say George Lucas.’’ What he produced in Hoylake was exactly what we’ve anticipated since he arrived with Tiger-like force three years ago at Congressional, site of his record-breaking romp at the U.S. Open, and then a year later at the PGA Championship, where he won by a record eight shots. He has spent the last two years in a self-acknowledged funk, not entirely of his own doing yet filled with experiences that unraveled his golf game. Maybe his problem was raw naivety, knowing him as a lad from County Down, Northern Ireland, who evidently wasn’t ready for a big-boy-pants swirl that invaded his young life of simplicity.

What he has been through? First there was an endorsement transition to Nike that forced him to change his equipment, a simple flip for a baseball or basketball player but not for a golfer who relies on his clubs and ball like close friends. Then he fired his management group, which had replaced a group he’d previously fired, decisions that allegedly violated contracts and resulted in lawsuits. Then he met a tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, who was No. 1 in the world at the same time McIlroy was the buzz of the golfing planet. You imagined how athletically gifted their kids would be, but the relationship sputtered, with both tumbling in the rankings amid strife that ended in May when McIlroy broke up with Wozniacki by phone — as they were preparing invitations for their scheduled wedding. A life in upheaval was reflected in his erratic game, with no trend more troubling than his struggles in the second round of tournaments big and small, leading the great Jack Nicklaus to broach the topic of what became known as “Freaky Fridays.’’

“I didn’t mention it to him,’’ McIlroy said. “He mentioned it to me — `How the hell can you shoot 63 and then 78?’ I think what we talked about was just holding a round together.’’

In a memorable weekend romp, he did more than that. Surving some late stumbles, he super-glued together his third major championship, a triumph that took on significance beyond his demonic battles. Only Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have won three majors at a younger age, and if they are the 1-2 on anyone’s all-time list, then we can wonder — with the same restraint reserved when we discuss Mike Trout as Derek Jeter’s baseball heir — if McIlroy will be the sport’s next ruler?

Certainly, his spirits are much better now, free of commitments and hassles.

“I’m immensely proud of myself,” he said after a two-shot victory that was threatened only briefly by a Sergio Garcia rally. “To sit here, 25 years of age, and win my third major championship and be three-quarters of the way to a career Grand Slam … yeah, I never dreamed of being at this point in my career so quickly.

“I’ve really found my passion again for golf. Not that it ever dwindled, but it’s what I think about when I get up in the morning. It’s what I think about when I go to bed. I just want to be the best golfer I can be. And I know if I can do that, then trophies like this are within my capability.”

It’s a far cry from his performance last year at the British, when he missed the cut and said, “Just thoughtless — just so, like, brain-dead, seriously. I feel like I’ve been walking around out there like that for the last couple months. I’m trying to get out of it. I just don’t quite know how.’’

He found the way Sunday afternoon, even handling a situation involving unruly fans with aplomb. After hitting his drive at No. 15 while armed with a three-shot lead, he used his club shaft to point out a rowdy fan, who instantly was ushered away by four policemen. One man had been shouting from the early holes, “Sergio is going to catch you.’’ Shaky as McIlroy’s seemed midway through the round, no one was going to catch him, and certainly not Garcia, who still hasn’t won a major and probably never will.

On a weekend when Woods delivered his worst-ever finish in a major, 23 shots behind McIlroy in 69th place, it’s tempting to say the torch officially has been passed. The kid, after all, is one Masters victory from a career Grand Slam, and he might have it already if he hadn’t crashed and burned in 2011 in the final round at Augusta National. Put it this way: If McIlroy’s dad wants to keep gambling, he’ll bet on Rory becoming the first European golfer to win at least 10 majors over laying cash on Woods to win a major the rest of his career.

“When he’s in rhythm, he’s phenomenal,” said Adam Scott, who clings to the world No. 1 ranking with McIlroy closing fast at No. 2. “He doesn’t have weaknesses and he has more strengths than most anyone else. When he’s in rhythm, you’ll see him shoot low numbers all the time.’’

When he’s in rhythm … when he’s in rhythm. That’s the only question, involving his focus. Said Woods, who has his own issues after yet another dismal weekend at a major: “The way he plays is pretty aggressively. When he gets it going, he gets it going. When it gets going bad, it gets going real bad. It’s one or the other. If you look at his results, it’s kind of that way.”

But with most of his personal problems behind him — the lawsuits are still pending — McIlroy sounds like he has his eyes on the prize. “Even though there’s still one major left this year that I want to desperately try and win, I’m looking forward to next April and trying to complete the career Grand Slam,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, it should be noted Wozniacki also won Sunday, claiming her first WTA title of the year at the Istanbul Cup. This came after Wozniacki used social media to apparently play head games with her ex-fiancee, first partying with the troubled Serena Williams and NBA player Greg Oden — mind explaining that threesome? — into the wee hours in South Beach last month, then sending an Instagram last week that noted she was wearing heels for the first time in two years. Seems McIlroy, at 5-9, is one inch taller than her.

If he saw the snipes, McIlroy didn’t allow himself to be bothered. “Am I in a better place? I’m happy with everything that’s going on,” he said. “I’m just really focused on my golf.’’

It’s called moving on, a requisite of life.

Anyone who was worrying about Rory McIlroy, here’s some advice: Don’t.