Rory McIlroy had reason to believe he would have won another major championship by now.
The U.S. Open last year at Congressional, where he obliterated the scoring record and won by eight shots, was supposed to be the start of a big career for the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland. Padraig Harrington even suggested that it might be McIlroy, not Tiger Woods, who challenged Jack Nicklaus' record in the majors.
And when McIlroy held off Woods to win the Honda Classic and rise to No. 1 in the world, golf appeared to have its next big star.
Not so fast.
McIlroy arrived at Kiawah Island with a rough summer behind him and slightly lower expectations. Win the PGA Championship? For him, simply being in contention on Sunday afternoon might constitute a success.
"I can't sit up here and say a success would be to win, or a top three or a top five," McIlroy said Wednesday, the final day of practice on the Ocean Course that again was disrupted by rain and the rumble of thunder low-hanging clouds. "If I feel like I have a decent chance going into Sunday, that's all I can ask for."
Based on his performance in the majors, that would seem reasonable.
McIlroy was one shot behind going in the Masters, and the tournament was his to win until a 77-76 finish left him tied for 40th, 15 shots out of the lead. He was 11 shots out of the lead at the U.S. Open, where he missed the cut. And after another lackluster showing at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, he wound up 15 shots behind in a tie for 60th.
That eight-shot win at Congressional seems a long time ago.
"I'm disappointed that I have not contended since," McIlroy said. "That's been the disappointing thing. I haven't given myself even a chance. I was in good position at the Masters going into Saturday and shot a bad third round and sort of blew myself out of contention. It would be great just to give myself a chance this week, get into contention and just feel that buzz again of getting into contention and remembering how it feels."
McIlroy said he would give himself a "B'' for the year. What drags the grade down are three straight missed cuts, and four out of five, right after he went to No. 1 in the world for the second time this year with a playoff loss at Quail Hollow. The upside was a strong start to the season that carried him to the top of the world ranking.
The runner-up finish at the Match Play Championship. The clutch putting down the stretch at the Honda Classic after Woods posted his closing 62. Coming from nowhere on the last day at Doral with a 67 and tying for third.
"Some weeks it's on and you just feel it and everything goes well," McIlroy said. "And I wish I had more weeks like that. But that's golf. That's what the best players do. They learn how to win when they're not playing with their 'A' game, and that's something I'm still learning how to do."
But he is making progress.
The scrutiny that has followed him for more than a year — his romance with Caroline Wozniacki, changing management — has started to subside only slightly. McIlroy showed some form last week at Firestone when he had a 67-68 weekend and tied for fifth. There is something about the Ocean Course that appeals to him, whether it's the strain of grass on the seaside course or the targets he can pick out on a 7,676-yard course.
A natural talent, he appears to have switched back to swinging instead of thinking, to playing instead of practicing.
"Certain players feel like they need to be on the range for two or three hours a day and really work on drills," he said. "And for me, I feel I practice much better on the course when I can see different shots and work it off different targets and just play. Play golf. I'll still go and practice on the range and work on things that I have to, but once I feel comfortable that I've done that, I'll want to go on to the course and make sure it's good out there."