Rory McIlroy is supposed to be carrying the burden of the world on his shoulders, weighed down by a game that has gone walkabout, equipment that doesn’t work, and a legal battle with his former management company.
Throw into that particular mix the gossip-column rumour that his relationship with Caroline Wozniacki has come to an end and you might expect to find a player who is not only down in the mouth, but almost down and out.
So, how to explain the McIlroy who has turned up in Shanghai this week looking to all the world like a serious contender for the BMW Masters tournament that gets under way at Lake Malaren tomorrow?
He may have had a torrid year by his own exalted standards, but the 24-year-old Northern Irishman has that familiar bounce in his step once more, a smile on his face, and that most precious of things for any top sportsman – a scent of victory.
McIlroy, who is yet to win in 2013, came close to breaking his duck when he finished runner-up at the Korean Open at the weekend. Buoyed by his performance, he nonetheless bristles at the thought that he let one get away. It may not have been the most high profile of events, but a win is a win nonetheless.
Ten strokes behind at the start of the final day, he eventually lost by one. “I can’t believe four under par won it,” he said. “I threw away 10 shots at the weekend just with the putts. There were good signs, though. I hit it really well tee to green and hit two flagsticks on Sunday.”
His final-round 67 could have been so much better, he said. Get the putting right and who knows what lies in store?
Most observers trace McIlroy’s sudden decline (he has fallen from No 1 in the world at the start of the year to No 6) to his switch of clubs from Titleist to Nike in January. He now admits that he had trouble adapting to his new equipment, but is positively beaming at the thought that he finally has a driver he can trust and a ball that is responding to his signals.
“It hasn’t been my best year but I’ve still got a lot of determination and motivation to get back to world No 1,” he said, before promptly contradicting himself.
“Not being world No 1 doesn’t make me more hungry, because it doesn’t matter if I’m No 3 or No 63. That doesn’t really make much difference to me. What makes me hungry is that I haven’t won any tournaments this year and the burning desire to win more is still very much in me.”
Of more immediate concern is the Ulsterman’s position in the Race to Dubai. Having won it at a canter last year, he lies at No 63 in the standings and needs to get into the top 60 to qualify for the DP World Tour Championship, the European Tour’s grand finale in Dubai next month. Who would have thought it?
“I’m just outside [qualifying] at the minute, but a good performance this week could make all the difference,” he said. “There’s big prize money [€850,000 (£720,000) to the winner] and lots of points up for grabs. This is a hugely important week for me – as is next week [at the HSBC Champions tournament, also in Shanghai]. I want to give myself a shot at defending my title.
“But there’s no sense of urgency. I’m not putting any pressure on myself. I have five events left this year and obviously it would be nice to finish 2013 with a win. But if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world.”
When Wozniacki won a tennis tournament in Luxembourg on Sunday, McIlroy tweeted his delight at the success of “his girl”. Perhaps this week, she will return the compliment.