What now for golf’s newest icon?

IF A golfer’s career can read like a novel, McIlroy has just whizzed through the first couple of chapters.

A European Tour win at the age of 19, a PGA Tour victory at 21 and now a major at 22, the youngest US Open champion since the legendary Bobby Jones in 1923.

So where do we go from here?

After such a commanding performance at Congressional Country Club in winning the 111th US Open by eight strokes at 16 under par on Sunday, many respected voices in the game, including his fellow Irish major winners Graeme McDowell and Pádraig Harrington, have jumped ahead to the final pages in hailing their boy as the next Tiger Woods, the man with Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors within his grasp.

That may well be so and the way McIlroy, now elevated in the rankings to number three in the world, has negotiated the potentially troublesome path from Masters disappointment to major championship success in 10 weeks certainly gives encouragement to their way of thinking.

This much we know, McIlroy has in less than three months since that fateful afternoon at Augusta National been through the bitter experience of losing a major rather than just contending in one, as he had been doing frequently in the past 18 months, and come out the other side with a formula for success.

“I knew he was playing very well and this week he’s been very determined and after the Masters he’s really gone to work on his game and improved a lot, there’s no doubt,” McIlroy’s father Gerry said on Sunday night. “He learnt a lot from the Masters and he’s calmer which is great.”

His natural talent had been evident from an early age and transferred to the pro ranks, now plain for all to see from some spectacular rounds, most notably the course-record 62 at Quail Hollow to snatch his maiden PGA Tour victory, the 63 at St Andrews in last year’s British Open, the first three rounds at Augusta National and the opening 36 holes at Congressional.

Yet rounds of 80 in the second round at St Andrews and in that final-round at this year’s Masters had people wondering if there was the mental strength to back up the ability.

McIlroy still needed to put four rounds of solid golf together on the highest stage and to his credit, as his father alluded to, he knuckled down on his return from the Masters.

He admonished his tentativeness on that last day in Augusta and the overly defensive approach he adopted to protect his four-shot, 54-hole lead. He hired short-game guru Dave Stockton, the American former major winner and Ryder Cup captain, to give him focus while putting, his perceived weak link. He sought out Nicklaus and picked his brain about how to get it done at the majors.

And he stopped being a nice guy on the course.

“Just a little change to my attitude and my demeanour on the course,” McIlroy explained. “I needed to be a little more cocky, a little more arrogant on the golf course, and think a little bit more about myself, which I’ve tried to incorporate a little bit, just on the golf course.

“I just try and have a bit of an attitude, you know? When I get myself in these positions, I have to really make sure that I don’t get ahead of myself and I don’t start playing defensively.

“I have to still play aggressively to the targets that I pick. And that’s really the main thing, even if you get four or five ahead of the field, six ahead of the field or whatever, you’re trying to get seven ahead, eight ahead, 10 ahead, whatever, you’re just trying to keep going.”

And with the on-course attitude came humility off it. A trip to Haiti the week before the US Open gave the 22-year-old golf star all the perspective he needed about chasing a little white golf ball around a field for a living.

Those are all things that stay with a person for a very long time. Long enough to win another 18 majors and pass his hero Nicklaus? We shall see, but the signs are good.

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Join us for a special evening of Cheltenham chat on Friday March 12 at 6.30pm with racing legend and Irish Examiner columnist Ruby Walsh, Irish Examiner racing correspondent Tommy Lyons, and former champion jockey and tv presenter Mick Fitzgerald, author of Better than Sex.

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