Well, that was fast.
Four days after a slumping Rory McIlroy went before the media to announce his split from fiancé Caroline Wozniacki, the curly-haired kid from Northern Ireland fired a final-round 66 to win the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, England.
The former No. 1 McIlroy began Sunday seven shots behind 54-hole leader Thomas Bjorn, but made six birdies, an eagle and two bogeys to clip countryman Shane Lowry (68) by one shot at 14 under par.
“It’s a roller-coaster,” McIlroy said after making five back-nine birdies to salt away his first European Tour win on European soil. “I’m not exactly sure how I’m feeling right now, to be honest.”
“Congratulations to @mcIlroyrory,” Ian Poulter tweeted, speaking for many. “Great round of golf, tough week and very pleased for him.”
Bjorn faded with a final-round 75 to tie for third with Luke Donald (70) at 12 under. Henrik Stenson, trying to supplant Adam Scott at No. 1 after just one week, shot a final-round 70 to tie for seventh, meaning Scott would have to finish worse than 13th at the Crowne Plaza Invitational.
This was McIlroy’s first Euro Tour win since the 2012 DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, and his first victory anywhere since the 2013 Australian Open. He had been mired in a long slump, falling from first to 10th in the world since a total equipment overhaul at the start of last season and a management shakeup that led to a lawsuit and a countersuit. (He is expected to move up to sixth in the World Ranking after Sunday’s win.) He also moved to Florida, and was trying to manage his relationship with the tennis player Wozniacki, whose schedule was equally peripatetic.
It all proved to be too much, and his game suffered.
McIlroy looked understandably glum as he spoke before the BMW PGA last Wednesday, detailing the breakup. The couple got engaged over New Year’s in Australia, and McIlroy said sending out wedding invitations last weekend made him realize he “wasn’t ready for all that marriage entails.” He said the split was amicable, that they’d both be better off and, “I will not be saying anything more about our relationship in any setting.”
At times this season McIlroy admitted he was troubled by his inability to focus over 72 holes. But in his first round at the BMW PGA, just a day after announcing the break with Wozniacki, he left his slow starts behind with three birdies and two eagles for an opening-round 68.
Like Sergio Garcia and Martina Hingis, and Greg Norman and Chris Evert, “Wozzilroy” represented a charming but ultimately doomed détente between the country club sports, golf and tennis. The split was just the latest reminder that behind almost every baton-twirling overachiever is a team of dedicated support staff -- including, more often than not, a devoted spouse.
Interviewed for an upcoming feature in Golf Magazine, Tom Watson was asked what he thinks of when he thinks of Jack Nicklaus. Watson could have waxed nostalgic over Nicklaus’s improbable and amazing 18 majors, but instead he spoke reverently of Jack’s wife Barbara, marveling at how she’d kept everyone’s ego in check, laughing as he recalled her litany of practical jokes. What would Jack have been without Barbara?
In an interview last week, Chris Evert -- who wed and divorced fellow tennis player John Lloyd and pro skier Andy Mill before her brief marriage to Norman -- stressed how athletes often must be “married” to their careers in order to stay on top. She spoke for many when she said of Wozzilroy: “I was in awe it worked as long as it did.”
It worked -- and it didn’t.
At the time of their breakup, McIlroy, 25, was just two years removed from his ascent to the No. 1 ranking but falling fast. He hadn’t won in the U.S. since Sept. 9, 2012, and with both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson also having become nonfactors, golf was bereft of star power in 2014.
Wozniacki, who had reached No. 1 in women’s tennis, had fallen all the way to 14th and, like her fiancé, was in the throes of a lackluster year.
“Wozniacki needs to reclaim her narrative,” Jane McManus wrote last week for ESPN, arguing it was time for the Danish star to revive her fading career after so much jetting around the world to watch her man play golf.
McIlroy, it seemed, also had a narrative to reclaim. A golf journalist tweeted a graph showing his ranking taking a nosedive since 2012, the not-so-subtle implication being that Wozniacki -- not McIlroy’s new Nike clubs and new Nike ball, not his move to South Florida, and not his legal back-and-forth with his former management company -- was at fault.
We’ll never know, just as we’ll never know what Jack would have been without Barbara. All we can say for sure is that golf, like tennis, is stingy with its affections, and so are followers of both sports, who were in accord in their reaction to last week’s news: sad story, good riddance.
With the U.S. Open (golf) and French Open (tennis) looming, Rory and Caroline can again lose themselves in their work. By winning the BMW, McIlroy began to do just that. Someday, if not today, he may look back on this wrenching decision as the hardest but the best one, the choice he had to make to reclaim his narrative. As he said at the BMW, “Time to move on.”