IF anything were to sum up quite what a remarkable 2014 Rory McIlroy has just enjoyed then the world rankings would be a good start.
In May the Holywood youngster had slipped outside the top 10 – Tiger Woods was still the No. 1 (he now sits on 11.62) with Adam Scott second on 8.30.
There were signs that the game that had deserted him in 2013 was on its way back but the only headlines he made at Augusta were when he was outscored by a marker, Jeff Knox, on the Saturday morning in Georgia.
Next year he will arrive on Magnolia Lane as very much the main story of the week, going for a third straight Major and career Grand Slam at just 25.
The winning run kicked off at Wentworth, a course where he had previously missed three of six cuts, before exploding into life in July.
In the space of a month he added a first Open Championship and WGC at Bridgestone, where he reclaimed his No. 1 spot, before capturing a second PGA crown at Valhalla.
The feeling had always been that McIlroy was brilliantly streaky – his first two Majors were eight-shot wins – but could, within the space of a round, become ragged.
This year, in 21 starts there have been 15 top 10s and just one missed cut.
“To win a fourth Major, to be one behind Phil and Seve, level with Ernie, I never thought I’d get this far at 25. The two next realistic goals are the career Grand Slam and trying to become the most successful European ever.”
It is a week after the win in the dark at Valhalla and we run into McIlroy at a rooftop bar overlooking the Empire State Building in Manhattan.
The suit that had caught plenty of headlines at Old Trafford the previous afternoon is replaced by jeans, trainers and glasses and the biggest force in the game is in an understandably relaxed mood.
Two of us attempt (and fail) to make conversation in as normal fashion as possible, despite giving away over 20 years in age, while McIlroy manages it in his usual assured and unassuming manner.
He laughs off the defeat to Swansea, giggles at some of the previous day’s terrace chants, nobody mentions the suit and he makes his excuses to join Keegan Bradley for a drink.
Life appears very sweet for McIlroy and rightly so.
Twenty-four hours later we meet again, this time in a more official capacity as McIlroy and Woods meet the world’s media as part of Nike’s spectacular launch of their new Vapor irons.
Again, the setting is bordering on the ridiculous at Liberty National GC. Again, McIlroy is relaxed and chatty.
We begin with the driver, the club that played such a huge part in dismantling Royal Liverpool and Valhalla and which saw the Northern Irishman average 310.5 yards off the tee behind only Americans Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson.
“I think I am as efficient as I have ever been – when I was younger I used to be able to create a lot of power and a lot of speed but it would have to be from an inside position and I would use a lot of hip thrust.
“Now I can get the club back down on the plane and use the strength that I have developed in my legs and in my core to bring the club back down. It could get more efficient but it is working pretty well.”
I first saw McIlroy in the flesh at the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie.
There he was stood behind the 1st tee watching a number of players begin their rounds.
To the untrained eye he looked like any other punter, albeit a very young one with plenty of puppy fat.
If my swing goes slightly off then I know what points to get it back to play my best" A few days later he would pick up the Silver Medal as the low amateur.
Now McIlroy is a very different animal, beefed up and toned, and with that changing body shape – he remains under 11 and a half stone thanks to a diet of lots of chicken and broccoli – comes a new-found versatility off the tee.
“I could always create the power but it would have to be a hard draw. Now I am comfortable with the cut, hitting it up, hitting it down.
“The right-to-left shot is still very comfortable but I am swinging it the best when I am hitting it left to right and I’ve felt that lately.”
A year on from Carnoustie I watch McIlroy hit balls for the first time and this remains one of the most impressive things that I have witnessed at any tournament.
Still a teenager he bounced onto the practice ground at the London Club and reeled off a procession of identical 9-irons into the boards at 150 yards.
While the repetitive thud was notable, the speed and balance with which he did it was even more so.
With around 50 European Tour pros all making more or less the same action this one stood out, even to my eye, by a mile and it is the work that McIlroy did as a 15 to 20-year- old which he believes is now paying off.
“I was developing my swing pattern in those years. Everyone has a blueprint of their swing, what it looks like and what positions they want to get it in, and I worked very hard during those years to try and engrain that all.
“If my swing goes slightly off then I know what points to get it back to play my best.”
In a practice ground world of plane drills, tour sticks, elbow tucks, half swings and gadgets and gizmos McIlroy doesn’t strike you as someone who, once the club is in the hand, gives much thought to what happens next.
Particularly after the run of successes that he has just undertaken.
To read part two of the interview CLICK HERE