Barely two weeks ago Rory McIlroy was the freshly minted No. 1 player in the world and basking in his new role at the Doral -Resort & Spa in Miami. The good-natured McIlroy, mature beyond his 22 years, fielded pretournament questions from a roomful of reporters as deftly as Ozzie Smith handled grounders in the hole, even when Rory was asked if he had any trepidation about occupying the top spot because, as one writer pointedly noted, the only place to go from there is… down.
McIlroy laughed. When you're No. 1, the room laughs with you. "Thanks for that," said McIlroy, flashing his winning smile. After more laughter Rory provided a suitable answer, proving that he gets it, not only in charming the media but also in understanding the fleeting nature of success at golf's highest level. He knew, he said, that he would inevitably lose the No. 1 spot. But he probably didn't think -inevitably meant two weeks. His reign was shorter than a drivable par-4.
On Sunday, Luke Donald sank a six-foot birdie putt on the first hole of a four-way playoff to win the Transitions Championship at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Fla., and reclaim the No. 1 spot he held for most of last year and the first two months of 2012. "Rory got a taste, and I'm sure he'll want more," said Donald. "It's nice to have a little back and forth. Golf is in a good spot right now."
Things could only get better if, say, Donald's win was the start of something big, like a delicious battle at the top or maybe even an out-and-out rivalry. Golf's capricious nature is also why no tournament is more aptly named than the Transitions, a popular but not quite must-play Tour stop in the run-up to the Masters.
The title sponsor is an eyewear brand, but the name of the event could just as well serve as a job description for most Tour players, whose careers are in transition on a weekly basis. They move up, they move down, they move on.
Donald, an earnest 34-year-old Englishman who made it to the top thanks to relentless consistency but without a major championship, reclaimed No. 1 with his fifth career PGA Tour victory. He wasn't the only player on the rebound at Innisbrook, only the one who had the happiest ending.
The others remain works in progress. Ernie Els, for instance, almost looked like the smiling big man who won three majors a very long time ago. At 42 his swing is still as smooth as ever, but putting has been anything but easy for the Big Easy. His career has slipped along with his once-deadly stroke, and now Els, ranked 62nd in the world, is without an invitation to the Masters, an event he has played every year since 1994.
On Sunday it appeared as if he would get another chance at the major title that has painfully eluded his grasp. He took the lead on the back nine, and at the 16th faced an -unassuming 41?2-foot birdie putt to stretch the margin to two shots. His attempt didn't sniff the cup. An errant iron at the par-3 17th cost him a bogey; then he missed a four-footer at 18 — pulled left again — for the bogey that kept him out of the playoff. Barring a victory at Bay Hill or in Houston, or a finish at Bay Hill high enough to vault him into the top 50 (that's the cutoff for World Ranking points; Els's tie for fifth at the Transitions moved him up six spots), he won't be making the trip to Augusta. Earlier in the week Els said he would be fine with that, adding, "I simply want to get my game back."
The reclamation of his putting stroke has not gone well. An outspoken opponent of alternative putters, he finally gave in last year and began using a belly putter, admitting, "I may as well cheat like the rest of them." Results have been slow to follow. He ranked 181st in putting last year and is 157th this season. Even after he shot a three-under 68 in the third round to climb into contention, Els grumbled, "Couldn't make a putt."
His friend, fellow South African and two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, fared even worse. One day after withdrawing from this week's event at Bay Hill, he shot a 65 and tied for the 54-hole lead with Jim Furyk. Goosen, 43, has bulging disks in his back, a problem that became acute in the middle of last year, eased off over the winter but recently worsened. A top five finish at Transitions probably would've been enough to get him into the top 50, but the Goose's back was uncooperative. On Sunday he double-bogeyed the reachable par-5 1st hole, shot a 75 and dropped to 20th. Now he can take his sweet time recovering from the protein injections he is scheduled to have this week, the same avant-garde procedure that back sufferers Fred Couples and Vijay Singh successfully used.
Furyk's attempt to rebound went a little better. At least he made the playoff (along with Sang-Moon Bae and Robert Garrigus), and narrowly missed a slippery 40-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole. Coming off the worst year of his 19-year career, a season during which he slid to 50th in the World Ranking, Furyk, 41, has also had a sluggish start to 2012.
Last year was a disaster in almost every way. Trying to pick up a little distance, Furyk went for low-spin clubs and balls and optimal launch angles. The problem is, he's a player who relies on shaping shots. Less spin on the ball meant less curve and less effective shotmaking. This year Furyk switched equipment companies, and changed clubs and balls. Last fall he junked the belly putter and went back to a conventional-length model, took a few months off to regroup and last weekend started to look like the gritty fighter and Ryder Cup veteran who punched out raindrops in the air after he won the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup title in 2010.
"The results might not show it, but I feel good about the way I'm hitting it, and I feel confident in my game," Furyk says. "I was laughing about my press conference on Saturday because all we did was talk about how bad I played last year. I'd like to play well for a few events so we could talk about how well I'm playing this year."
Meanwhile, John Daly, possibly the ultimate reclamation project, was simply happy to be in the field. Thanks to a sponsor's exemption (box), he got his first start of the year in the U.S., made the cut and finished 51st. Daly has been playing the European tour this year because his status as a former British Open champion gets him into tournaments there, while the exemptions he has relied on in the States have gotten scarcer as his play and behavior have deteriorated.
The kid who grew up in rural Arkansas and became a phenomenon when he won the 1991 PGA Championship will turn 46 next month, and now he's a globe-trotter because, he says, "I just want to play." He likes the European tour, he says, and he felt at home in India "because there's a lot of pigs in the streets." (He didn't like that he couldn't get a piece of red meat there, so he lived on peanut butter and Diet Coke.)
Daly sharpens his game by playing six or eight events in a row. He was fourth at Qatar in February but then injured his elbow in India, leading to a cortisone shot last week. He shot a one-under 141 on the weekend, and his mood brightened when his significant other, Anna, surprised him with 20 five-foot-high cardboard posters of his face that she and friends carried around. "You wouldn't believe how many people asked to buy one," Anna reported.
Her last poster was promised to Daly pal Jon Gruden, the former coach turned Monday Night Football analyst. Daly is looking forward to the Masters. He's not playing, but he'll park his motor home at Friedman's Jewelry on Washington Road and, as usual, hawk his line of merchandise. He'll also do golf outings and host dinners for Pilot Flying J, the truck-stop chain that sponsors him.
After signing the final autograph for a line of fans on Sunday, Daly and Anna headed for the parking lot just as Furyk, playing in the final twosome, walked off the 1st tee with purposeful strides. Daly would leave the next day from Tampa International Airport. He has a tournament in Morocco lined up, followed by one in Sicily.
Another transition, another tournament, another chance to reclaim what was once his.