This time last year, Rory McIlroy was so out of form that he was rated a 28-1 outsider to successfully defend his US PGA title.
Twelve months on, the 25-year-old is the 6-1 favourite, newly-crowned Open champion who is three-quarters of the way to a career grand slam – and he is not finished yet.
“It’s great to be introduced as the Open champion but that’s not all I want to be this year,” said McIlroy. “I want to achieve a lot more.”
McIlroy’s first two major titles were both won by eight shots, the 2011 US Open coming just two months after his collapse when four ahead going into the final round of the Masters and the 2012 US PGA championship following at Kiawah Island.
He threatened to repeat those feats by taking a six-shot lead into the last round at Royal Liverpool and moving further clear with a birdie on the first but, in the end, had to hold off a charging Sergio Garcia to win by two.
“It’s definitely a different feeling than winning the US Open,” he added ahead of the final major of the year at Valhalla. “I could have taken the rest of 2011 off and been totally happy!
“Winning the first one is sort of a relief, especially how I did it and after the Masters and everything there was a bit of a weight off my shoulders.
“Winning the Open feels pretty similar to the second one at the PGA because I set some goals after that and nearly achieved them all. I always feel like winning a major is almost a springboard in a way, especially after Kiawah.
“I didn’t want to rest on that, I’d already had a pretty good year but I wanted to keep going, win the FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai and keep that number one position in the world. I think every time you have success you have to reassess your goals.”
One of those goals is reclaiming the world No 1 spot he last held in March last year, while the biggest is becoming just the sixth player to win all four majors by gaining redemption at Augusta National.
McIlroy insists he has never had Jack Nicklaus’s record haul of 18 major titles in his sights, believing it would be foolish to do so and then reflect with disappointment on his career if he fell short of such an ambitious target.
It is a wise approach and another encouraging sign in a season which has twice seen him stress how golf has become his priority once more, the one thing in life he thinks about before going to bed and upon waking up in the morning.
“That’s what I’ve always done, it’s been my life since I was 10 years old,” added the former child prodigy. “Waking up every morning with that drive to want to get better, to want to be the best, that’s the place that I’m in in my life right now and that’s my main objective and my main focus. I feel like I am playing well and just want to continue to do that.”
That has not always appeared to be the case as McIlroy’s personal life was lived out in the glare of the world’s media, including calling off his wedding to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki on the eve of the BMW PGA Championship.
But four days later he was holding the trophy aloft at Wentworth and vowing to limit his time on social media for the foreseeable future, perhaps influenced by a two-hour meeting with Nicklaus.
“I didn’t grow up wanting to lead a normal life, I grew up wanting to win major championships,” added McIlroy. “I think you can still do both, you can lead a relatively normal life.
“The week after winning a big tournament like the Open is abnormal but I think you can still have the drive and the dedication to try to become one of the best players ever and still do relatively normal things.
“I feel like I can still be driven and dedicated enough that I can still try to become the best player that I can be.”
Consistency has been arguably the one thing missing from McIlroy’s game, but focusing on two “trigger” words as he did during the Open might prove to be the key to future success.
“For me it’s all a mental thing. If I can get myself in the right frame of mind, week in, week out, then, hopefully, I’ll have a lot more of those ‘on’ weeks.
“Everyone is going to have bad weeks, it’s inevitable, we’re not robots. There are plenty of players that would like to be as inconsistent as me. I know my good is very good and my bad can sometimes be very bad but, hopefully, I am on the right path to be more consistent.”
The last time Valhalla staged the US PGA Championship in 2000, the 18th green witnessed the passing of the torch between the two greatest players of their generations.
After coming agonisingly close to holing his approach to the par five for the eagle he needed to make the cut, Nicklaus ended the last round of his career in the year’s final major championship with a tap-in birdie.
The 18-time major winner then acknowledged the cheers of the crowd, pointed to his playing partner with a smile and gave him a thumbs-up, the Golden Bear acknowledging a young Tiger Woods was now the dominant figure in golf.
“He plays a game with which I am not familiar,” Nicklaus had said of Woods after their respective opening rounds of 77 and 66, using the same phrase Bobby Jones had once used to describe Nicklaus.
“He shot the easiest 66. He missed a half-dozen opportunities where it looked like they were in the hole. Phenomenal control, phenomenal concentration. That was a real treat to watch.”
Woods went on to successfully defend his title at Valhalla – although only after a three-hole play-off with Bob May – to make it three major victories in a row on his way to completing the ‘Tiger Slam’ at the 2001 Masters.
A further eight majors have been added to the collection since, but none since the 2008 US Open and Woods returns to Valhalla on the back of his worst 72-hole finish in a major as a professional.
Finishing 69th in the Open left Woods an amazing 23 shots behind McIlroy, but anyone expecting Woods to copy Nicklaus and simply hand over his crown to the 25-year-old from Northern Ireland next week would be advised not to hold their breath.