Rory McIlroy is not only No. 3 in our Player of the Decade rundown but also the greatest under-achiever, such is the dichotomy that seems to define the four-time major champion

“The past is a foreign country,” wrote LP Hartley in The Go-Between. “They do things differently there.” In the world of professional sport, to go back a decade is not just to re-visit the past but to skip back an entire era. Back in 2009, Rory McIlroy had yet to play in a Ryder Cup or win a major.

He turned pro, aged 17, immediately after playing in the 2007 Walker Cup and headed straight to The Oxfordshire to play in the preliminary stages of Q School. Within a month he had earned his tour card in just his second professional event by finishing third in the Dunhill Links. Precocious much?

By the end of 2009, McIlroy had entered the top 10 of the world rankings, won his first tour event at the Dubai Desert Classic and posted his first major top 10s, at the US Open and PGA.

He was primed for the new decade, especially with Tiger Woods’ personal scandals becoming public knowledge in the final months of the Noughties.

McIlroy, like many critics, saw the Masters as his most obvious route to a first major but by the end of 2010 it was the only one of the Big Four he had yet to post a top 10 in. Third at St Andrews, and again at the PGA, he was clearly getting closer.

So the following spring when he led the Masters after each of the first three days, the golfing world gathered to watch his coronation. The 21-year-old was four clear and still ahead at the turn. The collapse was hard to watch – back in 43 for a closing 80 and 15th place.

Player of the decade

Would this be the end of him?

No, he won the very next major, the US Open at Congressional, by a ridiculous eight shots.

McIlroy’s career is punctuated with highs and lows but nothing to compare with this one – before or since.

In 2012, the PGA, at Kiawah Island, followed before his best season to date in 2014 saw him get three-quarters of the way to the career grand slam. He won the Open at Royal Liverpool followed by another PGA, this time at Valhalla.

Since when, in major terms, nothing. He was been World No. 1 on multiple occasions. He has won just about every other notable event, from the Players to the Tour Championship, World Golf Championships, the AP Invitational, the DP World Tour Championship and his native Irish Open.

Player of the decade

He’s also played in five Ryder Cup teams, four of them victorious. He’s the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year.

What more do we want from? Well, plenty actually. As well as being one of the players of the decade, he somehow also seems to be its greatest under-achiever. And that’s the enigma of McIlroy.

He was No. 3 on our list, but is Rory McIlroy your Player of the Decade? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us.