Magical McIlroy living up to the hype

AT FIRST, I thought I was hearing things. But, no, there was no mistaking that sound.

“Rory, Rory, Rory,” they chanted as the teenager made his way through the big crowd assembled around the practice range shortly before noon at Augusta National yesterday. The word was out… Rory McIlroy was in town and everybody but everybody wanted a piece of him — and that included not just an adoring public intent on getting an eyeful of golf’s latest prodigy but also the American media.

When informed last week that McIlroy was due in the media centre for interview at 3pm on Monday, I immediately contacted tournament press officer Steve Ethun and asked if the conference could be brought forward by an hour or two. The five-hour time difference made that 8pm at home and deadline considerations inevitably became a factor.

The response was, as always, polite and considerate. But nothing happened and one good reason was that many of the American journalists wouldn’t have arrived by the initially arranged time and they wanted to be there!

Having warmed up (and it was essential to do so as Augusta yesterday was swept by a bitterly cold wind that gusted to more than 30mph), it was off to the 10th tee for young Rory with the masses following. He teamed up with European Ryder Cup player Oliver Wilson and Mike Weir, the Canadian winner of the Masters in 2003, before eventually making that long awaited visit to the media centre. It was his first time confronting this kind of inquisition as a professional at a “major” and he really did handle himself most impressively for a young man who won’t reach his 20th birthday until May 4th.

“I got to play the back nine and to skim it across the water at 16 and that was cool for it’s a week you’ve got to enjoy,” he said. “Obviously you want to do as well as you can but I’ve played well to get here and now that I’m here, I might as well enjoy it and see how far I can get. I’m expecting to play well and hopefully I’ll be in the mix at the weekend.”

Gary Player was in the media centre immediately ahead of McIlroy and pointing out that he pulled off the Grand Slam of golf at 29, Jack Nicklaus at 26 and Tiger Woods at 24 so the progression suggested that somebody younger again should be next to do it. Could that individual be Rory McIlroy?

“At 22, maybe, I don’t know, it’s not outside the realms of possibility,” he hesitated before stressing: “I’d have to play extremely well. There are so many great players out here and the depth of the fields is so strong that it’s very difficult to win a major championship let alone a PGA Tour event.”

Sensibly spoken, of course, and there are times when you wish that a man of such tender years shouldn’t be put in such an impossible situation. Fascinatingly, though, he takes it all in his stride and doesn’t dismiss any possibility, no matter how outlandish it might sound, especially if there’s a positive aspect to the question. And this should not be mistaken for big-headedness, not at all in my opinion, for without this kind of self belief, no sporting mountain will be climbed, no rugby Grand Slams, no World Boxing Championships, no Olympic medals.

“I didn’t feel any awe at all, I really didn’t,” he insisted. “I thought that would be the case and that I’d be nervous hitting my first tee shot but I wasn’t. Maybe if I played here as an amateur or a little younger, I would have been all over the place, but having been on Tour now for a year and a half, I’m not saying that it’s not any different but you do try to treat it as just another golf tournament.

“I don’t think I’m anything special, anything different as a person, I’m just an average guy who can play pretty good golf. I’m not one to get overwhelmed by much these days for some reason. I don’t know why. I’m really excited to be here, don’t get me wrong, but I’m going to try to get as much out of this week as possible and so you can’t really be in awe of anything. It’s the mental capacity that a certain personality might have. I just go about my business and play my golf and if it’s good enough, so be it.

“Maybe it’s from playing on Tour at such an early age, but I don’t feel like a 19-year-old. Obviously I am but I feel I have matured very quickly on Tour. Obviously it’s a great position to be in and one I’ve wanted to get to for a long time. The last time I felt overwhelmed? Maybe when I won in Dubai, I’d been getting close and there were a lot of emotions and thinking to myself when if I was going to get that win. Beating a field like that gave me a lot of confidence.”

And the present state of play concerning that famous head of wild, unruly hair?

“It’s starting to annoy me,” he allowed. “I might get it cut after this little stint over here.” Will it go before you win a major? Another slight hesitation and then: “It depends on how fast I win a major.” But you do have a barber at home? “I can’t remember,” came a pretty impressive closing punch line!


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