More than ever, perhaps, after landing what was surely an unlikely victory given the circumstances surrounding the 25-year-old Ulsterman coming into the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.
Five days after breaking off his engagement to tennis player Caroline Wozniacki and at the end of a remarkable final circuit, McIlroy landed the European Tour’s flagship title – the first Irishman to achieve the feat Harry Bradshaw at Llandudno in 1958.
Ironically given that, another Irishman, Shane Lowry, claimed second spot – a monster birdie putt at the last was worth a whopping £200,000 as he finished a shot ahead of two-times winner Luke Donald and overnight leader Thomas Bjorn – but this was McIlroy’s day.
It was the day he showed that he has the character to get over his split from Wozniacki, tough as that was. It was the day when he finally delivered in 2014, having twice let golden opportunities slip from his grasp so far this season.
“It’s been a weird week,” said the two-times major winner in something of an understatement as he celebrated what, remarkably, was his first victory as a professional on European soil. He could easily have pulled out of the event citing emotional reasons. Credit to him for playing, though, and he’ll be glad now that he did.
“It’s obviously been a week of very mixed emotions, but I’m sitting here looking at this trophy thinking ‘how the hell how did it happen this week?’ But it did and it’s obviously a great way to end the week,” he added.
It was vintage McIlroy over the closing nine holes, which he covered in five-under 32. A closing 66 for a 14-under-par total of 274 secured the spoils by a shot from Lowry (68), with Donald (70) and Bjorn (75) a stroke further back. Five clear at the start of the day, this was definitely one that Bjorn let get away. Once the door had been opened, though, McIlroy was ready to step in, admitting that he’d found solace inside the ropes at this difficult time in his life. “It was a little bit of a release,” he admitted of playing rather than pondering. “I was on my own and doing what I do best, which is playing golf, and that sort of gave me four or five hours of serenity or sanctuary or whatever you want to call it; just focusing on the job at hand which was to play golf and get the ball in the hole in the lowest number of shots possible.”
Trying to summarise an astonishing afternoon is easier said than done. Lowry, with an eagle at the fourth, had already reduced Bjorn’s lead to three shots when the Dane ran up an ugly triple-bogey 7 at the sixth. His playing partner in the final group, Luke Donald, did likewise.
After starting for home with three birdies, Lowry, who is coached by Edinburgh man Neil Manchip, opened up a two-shot lead. But, after finding a bush with a pulled tee shot at the 13th, a double-bogey 6 wiped out that advantage.
Seven shots off the pace at the start, McIlroy was on the periphery of things until chipping in for a 2 at the tenth. He also birdied the 12th and 13th before saving par at the 14th with an exquisite flop shot. He salvaged another important par at the 16th then finished with a flourish.
In went a birdie putt from around five feet at the 17th, giving him the lead for the first time. Bunkered in two at the last, his recovery was perfectly judged down the slope and a birdie went down on the card, too.
Lowry, bidding for the biggest win of his career, fought to the end, as his profitable putt at the last illustrated. So, too, did Donald, who chipped in for birdies at both the 13th and 16th holes. In contrast, Bjorn’s race was really run after he’d limped out in 39. His putting became too tentative thereafter. An event he’d started by shooting 62 then lit up again with a burst of six straight birdies in Saturday’s third round ultimately ended in disappointment.
Not for McIlroy, though, and he’s hoping this triumph will ignite his campaign. “I think it’s the start of something,” he declared. “I could feel my game sort of bubbling and it was getting there.
“I played well all week. I thought my short game was really good today when it needed to be, and I converted my chances when I got them. It feels great to win on the European Tour again. It’s been 18 months since my last win in Dubai 2012, so it’s probably overdue.
“It’s nice to win again, and it’s obviously a great event to win obviously. It’s the European Tour’s flagship event here at Wentworth, so it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Bjorn still leads this season’s Race to Dubai from McIlroy, with Lowry up to 15th after his splendid effort. “To be honest, I feel very unlucky,” said the 27-year-old. “But to hole the putt on the last and to finish second on my own is really nice. It’s given me a lot of world ranking points and a lot of Race to Dubai points, as well. So a lot of positives to take from the week.”
Donald, the 2011 and 2012 winner, echoed that comment, but both him and Bjorn were left ruing one costly hole. “I made that massive error of judgement on six and that kind of let everybody back into the frame,” said Bjorn of being too greedy from a fairway bunker and needing two shots to escape. “I knew that if I shot 72 today, it was going to be very difficult for people to catch me, but then all of a sudden the gameplan changed.
“It’s disappointing, but we’ll kick on from here.”
No-one, however, can feel more confident about that than McIlroy after re-igniting that engaging smile.