Rory McIlroy doesn't know what he wants

Chris Condon/PGA TOUR

The driving range at a major championship can feel a lot like a crowded subway platform. Swing coaches, sponsors, flacks, caddies, wives, trainers, writers, camera crews and agents all jostle for space, and fans murmur just beyond the ropes, their phones out, their eyes wide. A buzz of anticipation lingers in the air. It's what happens when golfers are playing not just for money, but for legacy, for a piece of the permanent record. This might be the best environment in which to stand, just for a few moments, and consider the awe-inspiring enigma that is Rory McIlroy.

As fascinating at it is to watch McIlroy hit golf balls on television, it is all the more mesmerizing to watch him hit balls in person, in an effortless rhythm. Television, even with HD cameras so sharp you can make out individual blades of grass from your couch, can only begin to do it justice. It's akin to describing how a five-star meal tastes by showing someone a picture of a steak on your phone.

You need to see it, smell it, hear it and breathe it in to truly appreciate how rare it is. The efficiency of his motion, the power generated by the devastating synergy of his arms, legs and hip turn, is unlike anything golf has ever seen, in part because McIlroy, at only 26 years old, is tiny by the typical standard of power athletes. He is 5-foot-10 and hovers around 160 pounds, but he is as lean as a swimmer.

He has no entourage, no cloud of fools begging for his attention. His coach, Michael Bannon, and his caddie, JP Fitzgerald, stand five feet away, watching mostly in silence. Small talk is kept to a minimum. Otherwise affable, McIlroy is deadly serious in these moments.

Occasionally, he'll take the crucifix he wears around his neck, put it between his teeth for a moment, push his right sleeve up like a matador, then hammer another shot toward a distant flag. He'll hold his swing's finish for the entire flight of the ball, posing like a statue. Young players, especially the handful of amateurs at each major, often pause when they walk past just to watch him practice, their eyes wide with wonder. It's as though they cannot believe he's playing the same sport.

McIlroy was supposed to own 2015. It was supposed to be the year we no longer debated whether he was the best player of his generation, and instead was our chance to watch McIlroy become one of greatest golfers in history. At one point in 2014, he won three straight tournaments -- the Open, the WGC Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship -- and in 11 of his 12 rounds during that stretch, he posted a score of 69 or better.

If he won the Masters -- a title that had eluded him in previous years, but seemed tailored to his skill set of booming drives and towering iron shots -- he'd become just the sixth man in history to capture the career Grand Slam. The way he belted balls with his driver, and the way he marched down the fairway, intimidating competitors with his steely, head-bobbing silence, felt like he was delivering a message: My era of dominance is just beginning.

What actually happened was more interesting. McIlroy won no majors, lost his No. 1 ranking to Jordan Spieth and missed the Open with an ankle injury he suffered while playing soccer. He looked exhausted at times, carrying the weight of these expectations. It was a reminder that golf might be the hardest sport on earth to dominate, and that Tiger Woods spoiled us for more than a decade by making a consistent level of brilliance seem almost routine. If we didn't understand it then, we know it now: Rory McIlroy is not Tiger Woods. Not even close.

We can and should still appreciate McIlroy for what he is. It's possible -- likely, even -- McIlroy will be happier and healthier in the long run specifically because he and Woods are such different people. But the fact that they had similarly breathtaking ball flights in their primes does not mean they'll have similar careers.

On the eve of 2016's first major, it's worth looking back at what unfolded over the past 12 months in an attempt to unpack the most interesting questions of McIlroy's career: What kind of player does he want to be? What kind of life does he want?

He seems, at times, like he's still figuring out the answer.

One year ago, in anticipation of McIlroy's attempt to win a career Grand Slam, Nike released an ad depicting a wide-eyed toddler sitting cross-legged in front of his television. On the screen, a young Tiger Woods rolls in a putt and fist-pumps with celebratory fury on his way to winning his first of three U.S. Amateur titles. In response, the young boy picks up a plastic club and lashes at a plastic golf ball, sending it caroming across his living room. Soft piano music, "Nuvole Bianche" by Ludovico Einaudi, begins to play, and as the young boy's arms and hips coil and then snap in tandem like the crack of a whip, it becomes clear what we are seeing. The boy is supposed to be McIlroy. The commercial's message is obvious: Even as young as 3, genius comes at least in part from inspiration.

The commercial, directed by Steve Rogers for Wieden+Kennedy, unfolds like a documentary. It follows Rory as he studies Woods' career over the next two decades. Tiger, with steely nerves and steady hands, makes big putts under pressure, and so Rory practices similar putts in the twilight of his backyard. Tiger wins the Masters, and so the young boy mounts a poster of his idol on the wall. Tiger hits a tee shot in a tournament with rain pouring off his hat, and so a shivering teenage Rory hits irons at the driving range, late into the night, even on days when he is soaked to the bone.

It culminates with Woods and McIlroy teeing off together in a professional tournament, Woods looking weathered but wise, his greatest triumphs come and gone, McIlroy looking spry and muscled, his best moments ahead, just beyond the horizon. Each man rips his drive into the distance, Tiger first, then Rory, and as they begin their walk up the lush fairway, Tiger passes a metaphoric torch in the form of a compliment: "Good shot there, man." The ad, tightly filmed in just two minutes, is one of those rare instances in which commerce morphs, briefly, into art.

There is an aspect of the commercial, however, that reveals more than anyone likely intended. It cuts off just as McIlroy and Woods are walking toward their second shots, and the message is clear: The small boy from a small country with an explosive swing dreamed big, worked hard and became a man. Woods is OK passing the torch to his rightful heir, gracefully acknowledging, for the first time, we are in the twilight of his golfing life. But we also have to understand that Woods' heir wouldn't be possible without Woods.

By cutting to black in that moment, just as McIlroy has metaphorically arrived, it obscures arguably the most compelling part of the journey. We see where inspiration can take you, but don't have to pause and ponder how heavy the burden is to bear once you arrive.

The burden, as it turns out, was enormous. You could see it weighing on McIlroy last year, no matter how often he tried to deflect it. Every practice session, every interview, every commercial shoot, every workout, it was obvious the Masters was weighing on his mind. Golf, which for years had been trapped in purgatory, waiting for Woods to find his form, was desperate to capitalize on McIlroy's rise.

The pre-Masters media blitz was exhausting. Hints of honesty crept into his answers. He told an England newspaper reporter he trusted that he'd come to realize he did not love golf the same way he did when he was a kid. He even went so far as to declare he had no intention of playing golf into his 40s. He was already imagining the day he could walk away.

"When I was a kid, if I spent a day away from the game, I couldn't wait to get back," McIlroy told The Telegraph. "Now I can't wait for a week off. When I was a kid, I never, ever wanted to get away from it."

Tiger's career had been defined by his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors, but McIlroy refused to let anyone think he was chasing a similar benchmark. He insisted that record meant nothing to him.

"I don't have a target," he said. "I'm just looking for my fifth. Hopefully when I get my fifth, I'll look for my sixth. At the end of my career, I'll add it up and see where it leaves me, and that's the way I'm going to approach it."

He tried to lighten the mood by having his friend, pop star Niall Horan of One Direction, caddie for him in the Par-3 contest. But by the time his first-round tee time finally arrived, McIlroy looked mentally spent, his body language dragging.

The first 27 holes of the tournament, McIlroy played tepid, tentative golf and looked like he was sleepwalking through some of his holes. He shot a first-round 71, and his score ballooned to 3 over par on the front nine on Friday. At the same time, Spieth was lapping the Masters field, opening with rounds of 64 and 66. By the time McIlroy finally snapped out of his pre-tournament fog, he glanced at a scoreboard to see Spieth was done with his Friday round and, at that point, 12 shots ahead. McIlroy's bid for history was essentially over. "I said right to his face, 'It's not fun when the second question you're asked is about Jordan, is it?'" Nick Faldo said. "It had to have lit a fire in him."

A furious charge -- he played the final 45 holes in 15 under par -- looked better on paper than in reality, vaulting McIlroy into fourth. But Spieth, by tying Woods for the lowest score in tournament history and winning his first major at age 21, had clearly positioned himself as a credible obstacle to McIlroy's dominance. A legitimate rivalry was born, even as Spieth tried to downplay it.

"Right now, I don't see myself there," Spieth said. "There is a lot of hard work left to get there. It's certainly a huge goal of mine to make it interesting with him."

For the most part, people inside the golf world didn't see Spieth's ascension as a legitimate threat to the true hierarchy of the game. McIlroy, like Woods in his prime, frequently hits shots that make you contemplate the limits of what's possible with a golf ball. Spieth, despite his tactical brilliance and the fact that he wields a putter the way Monet wielded a paintbrush, doesn't inspire quite the same awe.

"Rory is still the best player on Earth, by about a mile, no matter what Jordan does," says one former European Tour member who has known McIlroy since he was a teenager. "What Jordan has done is nice, but in terms of the ability to hit pure shots, it's not f---ing close."

McIlroy would never state it in such blunt terms. He can be ruthless on the course, but he is polite and genial outside competition, well liked among his peers on tour. He was gracious and complimentary toward Spieth throughout the season. But there were times when he seemed almost bemused at the suggestion the 22-year-old Texan (or anyone else in the world) was closing in on him.

After the disappointment at the Masters, McIlroy won the next tournament he entered, the WGC Cadillac Match Play, thumping Gary Woodland in the final for his 10th PGA Tour victory. He showed up at the Players Championship, and when paired with Spieth for the first two rounds, did his best to avoid rolling his eyes when peppered with questions about his budding rival.

"Last year it was Rickie [Fowler], this year it's Jordan," McIlroy said. "There have been four or five rivalries over the past year. It doesn't really do anything for me."

At the Wells Fargo Championship in May, McIlroy seemed interested in reminding everyone just how easily he can annihilate a golf course when he's focused and feeling comfortable. He fired a third-round 61, blitzed the field and cruised to a 7-stroke victory. Afterward, he confessed that the burden of chasing the career Grand Slam had unsettled him early in the season.

"I'm not going to lie," McIlroy said. "There was a lot of expectation going into Augusta, a lot of hype, a lot of expectation that I put on myself. I guess a little bit of weight has been lifted off the shoulders and freed me up not to think about it and just go on and play the rest of the season."

The weeks that followed, however, were a window into the paradox that is McIlroy's game: He missed the cut at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, then missed the cut at the Irish Open, a tournament hosted by his foundation. For all his physical skills, he is not a grinder. He cannot salvage sloppy rounds like Woods, who once made 142 consecutive cuts.

"I think that's just the way I'm going to be," McIlroy said. "I'd rather in a six-tournament period have three wins and three missed cuts than six top-10s. Volatility in golf is actually a good thing. If your good weeks are really good, it far outweighs the bad weeks."

There are times when McIlroy seems to long for the life that he had before he was famous, when he could spend an entire day not worrying about a camera, or an intrusive question from a stranger. When he was engaged to tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, the two frequently appeared in public and shared snippets of their romance on social media. For better or worse, for a long time, he let the world see glimpses of his personal life in ways Woods always resisted.

It felt, at times, like a direct rebellion against the pressure of being studied so closely, of feeling like a caged lion in a zoo exhibit. They seemed to revel in the attention. But something changed in McIlroy after he abruptly ended their engagement, and it wasn't just the criticism he endured for ending their relationship in a three-minute phone call. He seems to long for a return to a more private existence.

The week before the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, he spent three days walking around London on a mini-vacation. He rode to the top of the London Eye -- a giant Ferris wheel on the River Thames that let's you see as far as Windsor Castle on a clear day -- and tried to feel like a tourist with his new girlfriend, Erica Stoll, an employee with the PGA of America. McIlroy pulled his hat down low, and for the first time in a long time, he faded into the crowd.

Great golfers are always more interesting once they find their true foil. Bobby Jones needed Walter Hagen. Arnold Palmer needed Jack Nicklaus. Jack Nicklaus needed Tom Watson. Greg Norman needed Nick Faldo.

Tiger was a notable exception; he was magical and Shakespearean all on his own, and his real rivals were history and hubris. That proved to be true of McIlroy as well. At the U.S. Open, McIlroy entered a betting favorite, and he didn't shy away from a reporter wondering whether he, like LeBron James, saw himself as the best player on Earth.

"I think when LeBron talks about that, that's not confidence, that's a fact," McIlroy said. "If you look at the numbers, you can really see he is the best player in the world. And I guess for me, I feel the same way when I look at the world rankings and I see my name up at the top. If you look back at the last four or five years, I guess I've won more majors than anyone else in that time period. So do I feel like the best player in the world? Yes."

He also asserted that alpha mentality in subtle ways. When he was leaving the driving range early in the week, he paused to sign autographs for 15 minutes. A teenage boy politely thrust a picture of McIlroy and Spieth together at the Masters in front of him several times. McIlroy scribbled on dozens of pictures of his own likeness, wrote his name on hats, gloves and balls for eager kids in the hot Tacoma sunshine. But every time he saw the picture of him and Spieth, he deftly and deliberately moved down the rope line. He had no interest in elevating the Masters champ to his level.

Over the course of four days at the U.S. Open, on a course as dry as wrinkled sandpaper, McIlroy hit the ball in places Spieth couldn't dream of reaching. The majority of his drives and iron shots were stunning. By the end of the week, he would declare it the best he'd ever hit the ball in a major championship over four rounds, a stunning admission from someone who had once won a major by 8 shots.

But on greens that resembled rotting cauliflower, McIlroy couldn't coax the ball into the hole the way Spieth was doing it repeatedly. He was so frustrated, he declined to stop by the media center to speak to reporters, something Woods almost never did during his reign as the No. 1 player. By Saturday afternoon, McIlroy was scowling at scoreboards, mumbling curse words to himself as he walked to the next tee, whipping his putter in anger toward his bag after another birdie putt wiggled by the hole and he had to tap in for par.

"You start to miss a couple, you start to get a little tentative," he said. "You start to doubt yourself. Once I missed a couple, it got into my head and couldn't really get out of it."

When he walked off the 18th green, 8 shots behind Spieth going into the final round, he turned to Fitzgerald, his stoic, silent caddie, and grumbled what seemed like a window into his state of mind, referencing his U.S. Open win in 2011: "Thank God I've already got one of these."

It felt, going into the final round, like a pointless exercise. He began Sunday 8 shots behind Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Branden Grace and Jason Day, on a course that wasn't surrendering birdies. But gone was his icy demeanor. He cracked jokes with Fitzgerald, traded small talk with his playing partner, John Senden, and nodded and waved to fans pleading for his attention. On virtually every hole, someone in the gallery (often with a beer in hand) bellowed out a line from "Game of Thrones," declaring him "The King of the North!" He seemed, for the first time all week, relaxed.

Then something unlikely unfolded. His putts started falling. He birdied the second hole, then the seventh and eighth. He was still smashing the ball a mile off the tee, but now he was trickling in putts.

The growing roar from his gallery could be heard from across the course as he crept up the leaderboard. He began walking with purpose, his head bouncing, his eyes narrowing. He birdied the 10th and 12th holes by stuffing his approach shots in close, and when he rolled in a winding, twisting 72-foot birdie on the 13th hole for his sixth birdie of the day, the explosion of sound from the crowd was unlike anything Chambers Bay had heard all week.

Fans were abandoning the leaders and sprinting half a mile up the hill to join McIlroy's gallery. The idea that he might shoot 62 -- the lowest score ever in a major -- seemed like a real possibility. Maybe an inevitability.

But whatever magic McIlroy briefly bottled that day evaporated more quickly than it had arrived. He hit a putt on 14 that flirted with the hole but didn't fall, and it was as if the spell was broken. His shoulders slumped, he hung his head, he walked to the next tee muttering to himself.

He bogeyed two of the last four holes, his disinterest growing with every swing, and finished in ninth place. He walked in silence to the players lounge holding hands with Stoll, his father and his swing coach trailing slightly behind. The only sound was the crunch of the gravel beneath his spikes. He left the course right around the time Spieth birdied the 72nd hole to win his second straight major.

We tell ourselves often that golfers can defy the normal aging process of an athlete. We believe they'll win tournaments -- even win majors -- deep into their 40s. It's the one sport in which, just because you're approaching the halfway point of your life, it doesn't have to be the end of your competitive life. This is why we held on to the belief for so long that Woods would not only return from injury, but that he'd recapture the magic he displayed for a decade. It was inevitable.

For the most part, though, it's a lie.

Golf tends to break people as they get older, and this is especially true of the great ones, the men who carry the weight of the game on their shoulders. Bobby Jones retired at 28 because he hated the pressure of tournament golf. He'd stay up all night smoking and drinking whiskey to calm his nerves before a big match, and it made him miserable. In his 40s, Ben Hogan felt so paralyzed over the ball with a putter in his hand, he was embarrassed to play in front of other people and theorized that putting should be eliminated from the game entirely. Arnold Palmer never won another major after he turned 34 and was tormented by his inability to throttle back his aggressive nature. Woods, though his story isn't over yet, may never recover from numerous injuries and obsessive swing tinkering.

In most sports, our best athletes are undone by age because as their reflexes diminish, their muscle mass erodes. In golf, it's nerves that betray you. Even the great ones simply lose their nerve.

The one legend to escape that fate was Jack Nicklaus. He won his last major, his sixth Masters, and 18th overall, at age 46. He always attributed his longevity to the balance he struck between family, friendships and golf.

"He did not bring golf home," said Barbara Nicklaus, Jack's wife of 56 years. "And when he turned pro, he made it a point. He said, 'I will not be gone longer than two weeks at a time. Because I refuse to have my kids go away to college and say, gee, I wish I knew my dad.' And believe me, they knew their dad. He would fly cross-country for a football game or volleyball game, and our kids at that time thought that's what dads do. Now that they're married and have families of their own, they say, 'Wow, Dad really did support us.'"

Though Woods might have inspired McIlroy's career, it is Nicklaus' approach to life McIlroy has most tried to emulate. That's part of the reason he was playing soccer with friends two weeks before the Open when he ruptured a ligament in his ankle. He was trying to live some semblance of a normal life. Even though it cost him a chance to defend the Claret Jug, a chance to play the Open at the Old Course (where he shares the official course record), he insisted it would not alter the way he approaches his future.

"Not at all," McIlroy said, when asked if the injury would prompt him to give up soccer. "I'm not going to stop doing what I do. I enjoy that part of my life, I enjoy having that normality in my life, something that I've done since I was a kid, and I won't stop doing that."

Though he could not control what happened, he seemed determined to control the narrative of the injury, a strategy he could have easily learned from Woods. McIlroy -- not anyone in the media -- broke the story of his ankle injury when he posted a less-than-candid picture of himself on crutches, wearing a walking boot. McIlroy -- not anyone in the media -- broke the story that he was officially missing the Open with a photo of his feet propped up in front of the television, the Claret Jug artfully placed on the shelf at the bottom of the frame.

The discipline he and his management team showed was both calculating and impressive. They holed up in Portugal, turned down every interview request, and he intensified his rehab. Every few days, another Instagram post would appear, almost playful in nature. Rory standing on a mat, swinging a medicine ball; Rory hitting driver with a heavily taped ankle; Rory on a private jet, a string of emojis hinting at his return for the PGA Championship, the year's final major.

He didn't play particularly sharp golf at Whistling Straits. He insisted the ankle wasn't bothering him, but several times, he paused during his round when the attention was elsewhere to grimace and tug on the athletic tape around his foot. As he gradually fell out of contention, he seemed almost resigned to his fate. There would be no thundering charge the way there was at Chambers Bay. He passed the time between shots discussing the English Premier League with Fitzgerald as they strolled up the fairways.

During the third round, while waiting for the group ahead of them to clear the 13th fairway, McIlroy and playing partner Brooks Koepka engaged in a friendly debate on the tee over whether Woods -- who had missed his third straight cut at a major -- should enter the Wyndham Championship the following week. Woods' game had been in a state of disarray all season, and he looked like a ghost of his former self. If he decided not to play the Wyndham, his season would be over. He didn't have enough points to qualify for the FedExCup playoffs.

Koepka, a 25-year-old who hits the ball with booming ferocity, couldn't wrap his brain around why Woods was hesitating. "I mean, why wouldn't you play?" he asked. "Maybe he gets hot and wins, and suddenly his whole year feels different. You win once a year on the PGA Tour, that's a great year."

"Maybe," McIlroy said, looking out at Lake Michigan. "But his life has changed a lot in the last five years. You have to understand how important it is for him to spend time with his kids."

The tone of his voice suggested he understood Woods' internal dilemma better than he could even verbalize.

In the end, it felt like a lost season. McIlroy admitted as much. He put too much pressure on himself, got hung up on making history.

"Not that I was expecting to win, but there was just this expectation of [greatness]," McIlroy said. "Knowing what was at stake, what could happen, instead of just going out and playing and trying not to think about all that stuff. Going into next year, I'll still work as hard as ever in trying to get prepared and trying to get my shape in the best place possible to play those tournaments. But not work at it for the reason of 'I can make history here.'"

What does Rory McIlroy want?

To win a career Grand Slam? To dominate like Tiger did? To find balance in his life and have a family? To be left alone? To putt like Jordan Spieth? (He recently switched up his grip, going left hand low, just like Spieth does.)

Life's questions have multiplied with age. The ascension of Spieth and Jason Day has clearly lit a fire in him, and may benefit him in the long run, but he hasn't recaptured the magic of 2014. He's working harder than ever, getting out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to train and practice, (at least according to his new Nike commercial), but still figuring it out how to juggle it all. He got engaged to Stoll -- this time in private, unlike the Twitter announcement he made when he proposed to Wozniacki -- and though he insisted he was happier than ever, it didn't stop golf bloggers from asking whether the marriage might "derail" his career.

You can forgive him for occasionally reminiscing about the times in his life when things weren't so complicated. At the Tour Championship in September, he shared a story: There was a time, right after he turned pro, when what he wanted, more than anything, was an expensive watch. In 2007, shortly after he turned professional, he finished third in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship as an 18-year-old. His prize money, at that point, was set up to be wired straight into his bank account back in Ireland. He tried not to think much about it. His parents had juggled multiple jobs throughout his childhood to support his golf dreams, and the fact that he was playing for more money, each week, than they made in a decade was still a bit surreal. But the week after the Dunhill Links check was deposited, he went to get cash out of the ATM for the week, and when he saw his balance -- around 220,000 British pounds, or $450,000 -- he almost couldn't believe it. Most of his friends were still scraping together money to go to college, and here he was with more money than he could fathom. He went shopping for the perfect watch that very moment. "It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life," McIlroy said.

A time would soon come when money would mean little. He's now worth over $400 million. He has an endorsement deal with Omega and can afford any watch he wants. When McIlroy finished the story, a reporter asked him whether he still had the watch, which seemed so special back when he had no idea what the future would bring.

"I'm not sure," McIlroy admitted. "A bit of an anticlimax to that story."

So much had happened since then. It made little sense to linger for very long in the warm memories of the past when he was still figuring out how to navigate the present.