On Tuesday, the PGA of America made official what we have known all along: Rory McIlroy is the player of the year. In fact, Golf Magazine broke the news weeks earlier, naming McIlroy its POY. The PGA Tour will announce its own award next month, and it will be a DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN upset if McIlroy doesn't take that POY, too. After all, he led the Tour in victories (4), earnings ($8.047 million), and scoring average (68.87). (That last stat also earned him the Vardon Trophy.)
(Related Photos: McIlroy's 2012 Season)
So now that we've established that this is in fact Rory's year, it's time to look ahead: what will the kid do for an encore? Since 1994, only Tiger Woods has won more than one POY, though it must be noted that he scooped up 10 of them. Tom Lehman ('96), Mark O'Meara ('98) and Padraig Harrington ('08) pretty much fell into the abyss after their banner campaigns, and Jim Furyk ('10) hasn't exactly built on his, either.
So the question becomes is McIlroy, 23, another one-hit wonder, or will he begin stacking up great seasons one after the other, a la Woods? All signs point to the latter. McIlroy's friend and countryman Graeme McDowell is already looking beyond this standout season into the distant future.
"Can Rory win 19 major championships?" says McDowell. "He can if he wants to. Talent, skill, incredible 'winningness.' He has all that. But how much of a flame is inside of him? Does he want 20 major championships? If he does, it could be scary. He's certainly an awesome talent; he's certainly capable of doing it."
McIlroy instinctively deflects this kind of mushrooming expectation, but he is greedy for more glittering trophies. He already knows that his legacy will be defined by major championships; win enough of those and the POY awards are bound to pile up. That's why following last year's U.S. Open triumph with a victory at the 2012 PGA Championship was so significant.
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"I'm glad I got off one, for a start!" McIlory told me last month. "I'm glad I'm at 2. Now I want to get to 3. Hopefully I can get to 3, then I'd love to get to 4. That's the only way I feel comfortable to approach it. I don't feel comfortable putting a number on it. I feel like, just keep going, just keep trying to win as many as you can. I'm halfway to the career Grand Slam, so it would be nice to knock that off and then see what I can do from there."
Considering he's already contended at both the Masters and the British Open, it's easy to imagine McIlroy will fill out his CV sooner rather than later. Among his breakthroughs this year was learning how to close the deal when in contention.
"He has a different presence about him," says Justin Rose. The happy-go-lucky kid from Northern Ireland has morphed into a cold-blooded killer on Sunday afternoons.
"I've become a lot more comfortable in the lead," McIlroy says. "I used to feel quite nervous going into Sundays, quite apprehensive, basically thinking in my mind all the possibilities that might happen instead of going out and playing my best golf. I've gotten to the stage now where I can do that quite comfortably."
An upgraded short-game has provided some of this peace of mind. McIlroy's closing 66 at the PGA Championship to blow away the field by eight strokes may have been the round of the year on Tour. He hit only 10 greens in regulation but didn't make a bogey.
Says Luke Donald: "The big difference I've seen this year is his short game. He's obviously worked very, very hard. He's getting up and down and holing the putts you need to. He's got the whole package now."
(Related Photos: Rory McIlroy vs. Tiger Woods: Head-to-Head Meetings)
That would include the sweetest swing this side of Sam Snead. Woods and Harrington both tore apart their mechanics after POY seasons — Woods did it three times, which is mind-boggling — but McIlroy promises not to be seduced into change just for the sake of change.
"I don't think I need to make changes," he says with typical candor. "I know my golf swing, I know my tendencies, I know how it works. The model of my swing I feel will always stay the same. I just want to get the ball in the hole in the least shots possible. I know my best now is good enough, so I don't need I to change my swing to become a better player. Maybe some decisions on the golf course, or maybe add more variety to my short game, but as far as my golf swing is concerned, I don't need to go down that road."
For all of his maturity, McIlroy admits to losing a little focus after he ascended to the top of the World Ranking for the first time in March. The man he bumped, Donald, could empathize.
"It becomes harder to play as No. 1," Donald says. "But Rory is such a relaxed guy, I don't think it's been too much of a change. His style on course is very easygoing, just step up there and walks after it and hits it again. He's taken that that kind of attitude to the responsibilities of being No. 1. He strongly believes he has the talent to make history, but he's not putting any pressure on himself."
It wasn't quite that easy for McIlroy, who this spring suffered the first mini-slump of his career. That he still emerged at the POY is testament to what a fast learner he is.
"Golf to me now is… not the easy part…you still have to work at it…but I suppose the commitments and everything else that goes on around you becomes increasingly difficult the more high-profile you are," McIlroy says. "When you dream of winning tournaments, winning majors, you see the guys on TV, you see them holding the trophy, you don't see the rest of the stuff that goes on. That's something you have to adjust to. I feel like I have now and it's part of my daily routine and part of my life."
When McIlroy is being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2029, this year may be remembered as the most important of his career, when he matured from a boy wonder to a man in full. It's been obvious for a while now that McIlroy is a once-in-a-generation talent. These first player of the year awards make it official.
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