• ESPN Sports Personality - No. 8

Rory McIlroy: Eye of the Tiger

ESPN staff
December 12, 2012
Rory McIlroy had a stellar victory at the US PGA Championship, the highlight of a great year © Getty Images

The past 12 months have thrown up a catalogue of memorable performances, including golden Olympic moments, acts of golfing greatness and more than the odd piece of heroism on a bike. Leading up to Christmas, ESPN will name its top 10 sports personalities of the year in ascending order...

Give Rory McIlroy an Olympic medal to go for as well in 2012, and the young man from Northern Ireland could easily have found himself even higher up this list. Nevertheless, he enjoyed a golden year.

Up to world No. 1 for the first time in his life before April had even rolled around (although he would subsequently indulge in a bit of a back-and-forth with Luke Donald before claiming the spot for good a few months later), McIlroy built on all the promise he showed in 2011 - becoming a bona fide sporting superstar with another major title and a handful of significant victories.

In 2012 it is not an exaggeration to say that McIlroy confirmed himself as Tiger Woods' natural heir - both on the course (where he often dominated), and among sponsors (as he is set to join Woods at Nike in a multi-million pound deal).

The year started well, with a victory at the Honda Classic - following something of a back nine tussle with Woods - giving him his first official taste of life as the best player in the world. An underwhelming Masters and play-off defeat (to Rickie Fowler) at Quail Hollow soon followed, but then the 23-year-old suffered something of a dip in form, as his burgeoning relationship with tennis player Caroline Wozniacki led some to question his motivation after a few missed cuts crept into his game.

Maybe the criticism was warranted - McIlroy himself subsequently admitted his mentality was not quite right - but the reaction came soon enough.

He hardly starred in his defence of the US Open crown or in his bid to win the Open title a few weeks later, but McIlroy seemed a different player by the time he arrived at Kiawah Island for the US PGA Championship.

Four days later, it seemed to all the world like this young man was on a different planet, as he romped to an eight-shot victory - the same margin as his breakthrough success at Congressional just over a year earlier - to become the fourth youngest multiple major champion in history.

McIlroy was elated at the time, as he had every right to be, saying: "To win my second major and get [back] to world No. 1 all in the same day is very special."

He was far from finished, however - indeed, arguably his most impressive deeds were still to come. Buoyed by his recent form McIlroy carried himself like a champion - subsequently winning back-to-back FedEx Cup play-off events (the Deutsche Bank and BMW) to secure money-list honours and player of the year awards (although Brandt Snedeker would pip him to that lucrative FedEx bonus).

Another victory, at the European Tour's season-ending DP World Tour Championship, would complete the silverware collection for 2012 - in just twelve months, McIlroy has doubled his number of career professional victories from five to ten.

It was the sort of season even Tiger Woods in his prime would have been satisfied with, but the second major title remained the centrepiece. Good players often win one major, but only truly special players tend to win two.

Three or four, and suddenly you're entering the realm of an all-time great.

That's where McIlroy's career seems inexorably to be heading. McIlroy entered the year as the heir to the throne; now he's pretty much occupying it. Tiger Woods will want it back in 2013, but that's a battle with no certain winner (well, except for golf fans).

As McIlroy noted at Kiawah Island: "I heard Tiger say, 'To make a good season a great season, you need a major championship'. Now I've had two great seasons in a row."

Who knows how many more are to come.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.