Welcome back. I mean — if you are back. I certainly hope you're back.
It's been a long, lonely 2013 for your fans, but then you already knew that. You understand why we got a little overexcited about your recent exhibition victory over Tiger. Four birdies and an eagle in the last seven holes! Your first W of the year! Luke over Lord Vader by a shot!
You understand how we concluded that yes, you'd for sure come out the other side of your slump when you shot an opening-round 65 to take the lead at this week's HSBC Champions in Shanghai. Then came Friday's second-round 72 in which you shot three under on the front only to stumble home in three over and fall five shots behind Dustin Johnson (63). Hey, these things happen. We're only halfway through the HSBC, which for the first time counts just the same as the other three World Golf Championships (even if Tiger isn't there). Go get it, Rory. It's what you do.
That is you out there again, isn't it? I hope so. I'm getting so rusty at looking up your career accomplishments I accidentally called up those of one George McNeill. Ah, there it is — McIlroy, Rory, last seen in 2012. You copped four victories, including your second major in a runaway at the PGA Championship, seized the No. 1 ranking for the first time, made more than $8 million on the course alone and helped fuel Europe's improbable Ryder Cup rally. That's the guy we're watching in China this week, right? Yes. It has to be. This can't be the same guy whose best official finish in 2013 sounds like a bad punch line: runner-up, Valero Texas Open.
You understand, Rory, how for your fans this year's drop-off felt like going from truffles to Milk Bones, from Panem to District 12, from first class to Air Honda. You were such a breath of fresh air at the top of the game — open, engaging, happy — we weren't expecting the oxygen masks to fall out of the overhead panels. Your fans could feel the panic setting in way back in March, when as the defending champion you walked off in the middle of your second round at the Honda. A seasoned golf scribe looked especially crestfallen at the following week's WGC-Cadillac at Doral, and when he was asked what was wrong, he summed it up in one word: "Rory." He sighed, shook his head in despair — this from the supposedly impartial Fifth Estate.
As you know, Rory, we spent all year trying to figure it out. First it was the whiplash from the club overhaul, or maybe the ball change, or the shirt-hat-shoes change. Whatever. It was definitely some sort of sudden-onset Swoosh sickness. But then came the silver medal in Texas and three fine rounds at the Masters (25th) — O.K., the third-round 79 didn't help — and a T-10 at the Wells Fargo at Quail Hollow, a place you love, and a T-8 at the Players at Sawgrass, a place you don't. It was only a matter of time until you were back to your endearing habit of collecting trophies and the public's goodwill for those humanitarian trips to Haiti.
And then it wasn't: 57th at the Memorial, 41st at the U.S. Open, 79-75 and a missed cut at the British. By this time, of course, the Swoosh theory was out of fashion. The fault was in your second big management shakeup, or your move to Florida, or some sort of evil Jedi mind trick on Tiger's part, or yes, the cutesy Wozilroy partnership — your exhaustively chronicled yet still sort of charming (for a while) relationship with Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
It was this last bit of conjecture, born of the idea that women's tennis and men's golf simply don't "compatibate" — as Boo Weekley might put it — that gained the most traction. How could McIlroy-Wozniacki have failed to heed the lessons of their elders, thereby poisoning their respective careers? Even Gary Player, renowned for his life lessons on the subjects of sit-ups and sliced almonds, began lecturing on the virtues of a good wife — apparently he and Jack and Arnie had one — and lamenting the loose bogeys that can come from the wrong kind of lovin'.
I don't know, Rory. I don't know if you switched from whole milk to two percent, from Folgers crystals to shade-grown coffee from a gorilla preserve in Uganda. Gary McCord told me recently that he didn't see the same natural draw coming off your clubs at the start of this year, at which point you started messing around with your swing in order to recreate a familiar shot shape, and those swing tweaks might have caused, in your words, "a couple of bad habits." Now you're playing with a new Nike driver and a softer ball. Are the bad habits gone?
Is your girlfriend gone? Again, I don't know. I don't know if you and sweet Caroline have gone the way of Sergio Garcia and Martina Hingis, and Greg Norman and Chris Evert, as has been reported, or if you're still going strong, or if you've decided to take a break and see other international superstars for a while. I don't know how your lawsuit and countersuit with Horizon Sports Management will turn out. With the case not scheduled to be heard until next October, no one will know for a long time. This concerns me, Rory. In fact, if things continue to go wrong, you just know this will become the excuse du jour in 2014. You won't even have to make it yourself; the media will do it for you. You're welcome.
Here's something you may not know, seeing as how you're only 24. We have our own mental-game coaches, even if all we do is try to get our words grooved onto the page. Isn't that funny? Anyway, these coaches, they tell us to embrace the not-knowing. We've tried. We really have. But for us, your fans, there's just been too much to embrace, too much to get our arms around. Now, with your victory over Tiger, your opening-round 65 at the HSBC, your new driver, your softer ball and the agitated snow globe that was your life settling back into some version of settled, we can feel it in the marrow of our bones: You're back.