He was the troubled young lad when we left him a year ago in the final episode of one of our favorite television series. Money and fame apparently had turned his curly head. He was dropping old business relationships left and right, had fallen romantically for that blonde tennis goddess from Poland or Denmark, and seemingly had squandered the magic touch that had brought him to the world stage.
What would become of Rory McIlroy, 24-year-old Irish millionaire? That was one of the grand cliffhangers as the show PGA Tour Golf: 2013 closed up shop. McIlroy had plunged from first all the way to sixth place in the world rankings. A further decline was expected. There was a Downton Abbey touch to all of it.
Troubled times, troubled times, troubled times.
"I was thinking of other things [apart from golf] when I really shouldn't have had to," he explained as the long year ended. "But that's the last year I'm ever going to have to go through that. I've learnt from it and am smarter because of it. And it's great that that I've gone through it at this stage of my career and not 15 years down the line."
A good thought, perhaps, but there clearly was work to do.
His 2013 low point had come early, the indicator of the bad times to follow. Even as he arrived as No. 1 in the world to play in the Honda Classic at PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., his first PGA tournament of the season, he was in a funk.
His celebrated switch in equipment to Nike clubs and balls and swoosh-covered underwear seemed to have left him uncomfortable. His break with longtime agent Chubby Chandler seemed to have left him even more uncomfortable. His relationship with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, the Polish/Danish tennis goddess, seemed tempestuous.
As all of these bees buzzed in his head, he played some awful golf. (For him.) On the second day of the tournament, second round, he was seven strokes over par after eight holes. That translated to par, double bogey, par, bogey, par, par, triple bogey. He played the back nine first, so now his ninth hole was the 18th at National. When he plunked his second shot into a pond, he had seen enough. He shook hands with his playing partners, Ernie Els and Mark Wilson, left his scorecard with them, went straight to the parking lot and drove to his new high-end home in nearby Jupiter, Fla.
He quit. Just like that.
His public explanation was that he had been bothered by a pair of inflamed wisdom teeth, but the words fell flat on anyone who knew anything about golf. Inflamed wisdom teeth do not stop professional golfers from completing a round. Bad golf. Bad thoughts. Bad day. Bad. Bad. Bad. That is what makes a man leave the golf course.
His 2013 season went from there. He never won a tournament on the PGA Tour. He never was a factor in any of the four majors. The cloud from the Honda Classic followed him to the end. He walked from the golf course into the off-season as if he were another overburdened character from Boardwalk Empire or Justified or The Wire or House of Cards or any of our favorite serial shows. The kid. What would happen to him next?
"Is he gone forever?" was the question. "Was his success only an illusion? Can he come back? He wouldn't be the first flameout after a grand arrival? He won't be the last."
So yesterday -- spoiler alert! spoiler alert! spoiler alert! -- he was back at the scene of the crime. This was the 2014 Honda Classic. Same tough course. Same tough opposition. This tournament has became the true beginning of the PGA Tour, the first gathering of the top stars in a medal-play format, six weeks before the Masters.
Seven of the top 10 players in the world were in the field and there would have been eight if Justin Rose hadn't been forced to withdraw with shoulder problems. All of the old plot lines from last year came back.
Is Tiger Woods finished or ready to come back and amaze us all again? (Is he happy? Is Lindsey Vonn good for him? Blah. Blah.) How is Old Lefty, Phil Mickelson? Will age begin to intrude in his 43th year? What about Rickie Fowler? The golf companies would love to have his hip-hop look in the trophy pictures. Is this his year? Which other young chargers lurk in the background, ready to take charge?
Rory McIlroy's story was part of the mix.
"You should never walk off the golf course, no matter how bad things are," he told reporters on Wednesday, apologizing for 2013 before the tournament started. "It was just one of those days. I just felt like I couldn't cope with anything more, especially not the way I was heading. I was going to shoot 90, the last thing I needed."
His life had settled in the off-season. That was his big change. He had become engaged to the blonde tennis goddess on New Year's Eve in Sydney, Australia. They were going to marry, have a family, normal stuff. He had blown up all of his management teams. He was managing himself now with help from lawyers, accountants, and all the rest. He was familiar with his golf equipment, thank you very much, never thought the switch was a big factor. He felt good. He felt great. He was ready to go.
He proceeded to shoot seven-under, 63, on Thursday, his lowest round on the PGA tour since 2010. He stayed out of trouble, left himself some wonderful putts, but made a couple of long ones, too, to lead the field by a stroke. The blonde tennis goddess watched him. His mother and father watched him, too. It was his mother's birthday. He wished her happy birthday at the end of his round.
"Personal life is great," he told reporters. "Looking forward to getting married at some point in the future and I feel like if everything is settled off the course, I perform better on it. I couldn't be in a better place right now."
Spoiler alert. The troubled young lad looked great. There are three rounds left, of course, in the Honda Classic at PGA National, and there is a whole season of ups, downs, unpredictable drama to follow after that. But put it down that the curly head of the 24-year-old Irish millionaire seems pointed in the right direction.
Rory McIlroy's big year might simply come a year later than it was expected.