Rory McIlroy’s greatest purple patch followed a break-up – so all eyes on US PGA

Rory McIlroy warming up for the US PGA Championship
McIlroy was already among the favourites for the US PGA Championship that starts on Thursday - PGA of America/Maddie Meyer

Rory McIlroy was racing towards his four golfing majors to date when his first serious relationship cracked at a key pressure point. “The problem is mine,” McIlroy said in 2014 after telling fiancée Caroline Wozniacki he had cold feet. The wedding invitations were memorably cited as the moment he realised “I wasn’t ready for all that marriage entails.”

This time, a decade on, it is the looming US PGA Championship, starting on Thursday, and his long wait for a fifth major that has focused the mind. After seven years of marriage, documents filed in Florida on Monday confirm that he and Erica Stoll have officially parted ways.

This time the split will undoubtedly be even more painful and complicated for those involved. Three-year-old daughter Poppy will be the priority. But McIlroy, always a candid figure at press conferences, will be hoping his performances in the day job can prove an added distraction, just like they did a decade ago. Memories of his finest purple patch despite the intense scrutiny over his sporting power-couple split with tennis star Wozniacki will come flashing back.

Rory McIlroy with Caroline Wozniacki
Wozniacki and McIlroy pictured at the Masters in 2013. They broke up the following year - AFP/JIM WATSON
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland walks with his wife Erica Stoll during the par 3 contest held on the final day of practice for the 2018 Masters golf tournament
Erica Stoll and McIlroy are seen here at the Masters in 2018. They are divorcing this year - Reuters/JONATHAN ERNST

The 25-year-old McIlroy was able to put the ordeal behind him quickly, securing golfing feats only matched at such a young age by Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones and Young Tom Morris. Just three months on from the plan, he was joining such feted names as a four-time major winner. It is a freak of fate that, after the collapse of his nine-year relationship with Stoll – seven of those as husband and wife – his return to the US PGA championship in Kentucky is being billed as one of his greatest opportunities to add a fifth.

For Wozniacki, an A-list sporting name in her own right, the career rollercoaster would prove even more white-knuckle after McIlroy ended their relationship unexpectedly by phone. “In my head I had everything until that moment,” Wozniacki had said a year after the split. “I had a great career, I was getting married, I have a perfect family. Everything was great. There was really nothing going against me. I was happy, very happy.

“Then all of a sudden something happens that you don’t expect. You just see your world turned around, literally from one second to the next. I think I didn’t know how strong I was until that happened. And I didn’t know how much you can actually take. It really feels like someone close to you has died.”

In 2017, after a period of poor form, she returned to her world-beating best, quickly climbing into tennis’ top five and enjoying her crowning glory the following year: an Australian Open title. Having won 30 singles titles, she retired abruptly after a third-round loss in the 2020 Australian Open. She focused initially on home life and childcare, having married the former basketballer David Lee. However, she pulled a surprise last year in June 2023 by returning to the sport.

“Over these past three years away from the game I got to make up for lost time with my family,” she said. “I became a mother and now have two beautiful children I am so grateful for. But I still have goals I want to accomplish. I want to show my kids that you can pursue your dreams no matter your age or role.”

For McIlroy too, there will also now be a leap into the unknown as he is plunged immediately into action without an ever-present in his adult life. He and Stoll had met at the 2012 Ryder Cup in Chicago where she was working for the PGA of America and famously arranged a police escort to the course after he misread his tee-time for the Sunday singles. He made it to the course with minutes to spare and went on to beat Keegan Bradley as Europe pulled off the ‘Miracle at Medinah’.

Now, in Kentucky with no Stoll at his side, another make or break moment for McIlroy awaits.

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