Twelve months ago, on the same patch of Bermuda grass in south Florida, Rory McIlroy first climbed to the pinnacle of the golfing mountain.
This week, he arrives as the defending champion at the PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, located 10 minutes from his new waterside mansion, with a fat cheque from Nike in the bank, a new set of clubs in the bag, and more scrutiny than he could have envisioned.
In three rounds this year, including two in Abu Dhabi, the reigning world No 1 has put numbers on the card that draw stares for the wrong reasons – 75, 75 and 76. As for the view from the mountaintop, the analysis has come down on him like an avalanche.
As the Nike deal was being formalised, McIlroy birdied the last five holes to win the European Tour finale in Dubai last November, cementing the top-player awards on the game's two major circuits. With pay cheques come checks and balances, and McIlroy is getting plenty of it.
The questions have grown louder than the digits on his contract, reportedly worth as much as US$25 million (Dh91.8m) annually.
"This is dangerous," the six-time major winner Nick Faldo told the Golf Channel after McIlroy was defeated in the first round of match play last week.
"Bottom line, he's used one brand, gone from rookie of the year to world No 1 in about five years, and been the lot."
It has been a lot of homeliness so far. In 54 holes this year, McIlroy is a cumulative 10 over with nine bogeys, four double-bogeys and seven birdies.
"People say, he's so darned good, he can compensate," Faldo said. "But I don't feel when you've climbed that wonderful climb to world No 1, you should be compensating and trying to find a way for this equipment to fit you. I think it's a very dangerous time."
McIlroy insists the skid is more related to his swing, which fell out of rhythm following his victory in Dubai. The notion has the Ulsterman talking in circles to some degree.
"That's the real concern – not concern for me, it's not a concern - but I would like to get back to where I was, say, the middle of last year," he said in Florida on Tuesday. "Because if you put my swing now up against the way I was swinging it last year, it's chalk and cheese."
McIlroy, only 23, already understands that instant analysis in a Twitter world comes with the terrain as the game's top man.
"I knew there was going to be comments if it didn't happen for me right away," he said. "I guess it's still an adjustment period. It's going to be a gradual thing."
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