Rory McIlroy is always liable to throw what the Americans call a curve ball but it was genuinely shocking to see him melt down so quickly in the Honda Classic in 2013.
Having written a glowing account of how well he was adjusting to life in the spoitlight following his $100m move to Nike and observed him effortlessly handle the media scrutinty at a mid-week gig for new sponsors Bose, the writer's version of the TV commentator's curse struck in no uncertain terms on Thursday morning when he walked off the course after completing just eight holes.
Just 24 hours earlier I'd written for The Irish Times:
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”? Not McIlroy, who has impressed even Tiger Woods with the way he has handled the pressure and the scrutiny that comes with the role since he ascended to the throne by winning the Honda Classic 12 months ago. Fast forward seven months and McIlroy’s game is once again under the microscope. He’s only played three competitive rounds of golf since signing a new club endorsement deal with Nike in January. Yet a missed cut and a less than impressive performance in losing to Shane Lowry in the first round of last week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play has the critics sharpening their pencils once more.
"One would expect McIlroy to be positively bristling at this stage. But there is no real sense of tension about the youngster this time. Indeed, he positively wowed onlookers in Palm Beach Gardens on Tuesday night when he attended a function announcing a new sponsorship with headphone and sound system giants the Bose Corporation and spent more than an hour there, mingling with guests and even performing a few of the keepy-uppy tricks shots he perfected as a child.
"As Woods said yesterday: “I think Rory is doing a fantastic job of dealing with it all. I got to No 1 very quickly. I turned pro in August and I think by Augusta, somewhere in there, I became No. 1. It was a little bit faster than what Rory."
Little did we know what was going on behind the scenes in McIlroy's life back then. He'd hinted at an off-course problem as he stood by boot of his car at the Honda but thought better of elaborting on it and simply stuck to his mantra and repeated that he just wasn't in "in a good place mentally."
Fast forward two years and it appears that all the problems that were simmering under the surface that week — bedding in the Nike clubs, Horizon Sports (at an estimated cost of $30m) and his relationship with Caroline Wozniacki (he broke off the engagement) have gone away.
He's won two majors since he lost the Honda Classic in a playoff last year — a tournament he should have won in a canter but threw away with some poor shots and dubious decisions over the last nine holes.
Now playing some of the best golf of his life, he makes his first US appearance of 2015 today and one wonders where he will be in 12 months' time as he chases his third major win in a row at the Masters, not to mention the career Grand Slam.
Writing in the New York Times, Karen Crouse observes McIlroy during his practice round and writes that he's far more comfortable, and in control, in the spotlight that he was in 2013.
"McIlroy’s office and refuge are inside the gallery ropes. Surfacing on American soil for the first time since the Tour Championship last September, McIlroy appeared strikingly in his element, like an alligator in water. He played the first six holes of the P.G.A. National Champion course in four under and missed one green on the front nine.
Fans clamored for McIlroy’s autograph as he moved from one green to the next tee. In previous years he signed everything thrust in front of him during the pro-am. But this year McIlroy did not let the outside world encroach on his inside-the-ropes bubble. He told autograph seekers he would sign after he was finished, and he was true to his word. But he signed for a fixed amount of time rather than accommodating every request.
The top-ranked McIlroy, 25, is the face of golf, and he will remain so unless Tiger Woods regains his championship form when he returns to competition. McIlroy has been in this position before, having assumed the No. 1 ranking for the first time after holding off Woods to win here in 2012.
But the crown does not feel as if it is made thorns, as it did at the 2013 Honda Classic, when a beat and beaten-down McIlroy walked off the course in the middle of his second round.
“I’m in a great position, and I feel like I handle the position I’m in a lot better than I did a couple of years ago,” McIlroy said.
We've asked McIlroy many times about his true desire to be "the man" and take on all the baggage that goes with being a Woods-like figure.
This time, he really sounds like he wants the job. Fox Sports' Robert Lusetich asked him:
"I know you just said what you said, but golf has always been star-driven in a way, the Tiger Woods era and Greg Norman before, and there's always good players but there's always one that stands out. Do you feel that you are comfortable being that guy?"
"Yes. Because it's what I've always wanted to do. You know, it would be pretty‑‑ I would be wasting my time if I was out there practicing as much as I do and putting as much into it if I didn't want to be in this position, and wasting the people's time around me, as well, that helped me get to this point.
"Of course I want to be that guy. I want to be the guy that ‑‑ I said it last year, golf is waiting for someone like that to step forward, put their hand up and win the big tournaments and sort of become‑‑ I think it's harder to become as dominant these days with technology and course conditions and the depth of the fields. Everyone's got a lot more knowledge and knows a lot more good the game, and everyone just works harder and are more professional at what they do.
"Yeah, this is the position want to be in and I want to be in it as long as I can."
ESPN's Bob Harig writes that McIlroy is happy with the way his build up to Augusta National is going.
As for the recent Ryder Cup news, McIlroy says he was surprised the Americans gave Davis Love a second chance, not that he wasn't deserving. Looking at the US set up, it all smacks of desperation for the world NO 1.
Harig and others write of McIlroy's post presser scrum on the US Ryder Cup situation. For Rory, they're clearly desperate to end their losing streak.
"It's been said by a few players since we won at Gleneagles that it's not rocket science why Europe has won the last three Ryder Cups and eight of the past 10," McIlroy said. "I do get the sense the States, what with their task force and everything that came out in the announcement yesterday, that they're desperate to win back the Ryder Cup."
Irish golf fans will be aware that Pádraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell are also teeing it up at Palm Beach Gardens.