GOLF: Red Hot Rory

It took some of golf’s cogniscenti a while to digest the depth of Rory McIlroy’s quality. No one is doubting the torch has passed now. By Jim McCabe.

GIVEN the locale — America’s massive Sonoran Desert — and that he had just one week earlier been entrenched in the Middle East, there was reason to suggest that Andrew ‘Chubby’ Chandler was falling victim to that legendary optical phenomenon.

Clearly, he was seeing a mirage — or imagining one — because while discussing Rory McIlroy with a golf reporter he said, “When he becomes No. 1 in the world . . .”

Chandler stopped when he caught the writer’s sceptical look and said again: “When — and there is no ‘if’ — he becomes No. 1, he’ll be there a while.”

Now it comes with the territory for an agent to forward his client’s cause and Chandler is certainly one of the more flamboyant management types in the world of golf. But put that aside, it appeared a bit much to boldly advertise McIlroy as a prospective No. 1. Good gracious, what was he at the time, still 19? And he was playing in just his 38th tournament as a professional and his first in America, where clearly the road to No. 1 had to run through?

One only had to look around at the pro golf landscape to see what was involved with predicting McIlroy would reach there.

First up, wasn’t the incomparable Tiger Woods in the midst of an unfathomable 281-week run as No. 1 and showing no signs of slowing down? And wasn’t it true that a dynamic major-winner named Phil Mickelson had never reached No. 1? Nor had Sergio Garcia or Adam Scott, and ditto Padraig Harrington, Jim Furyk, or Steve Stricker?

So as Chandler spoke during a stroll around the contrived Ritz-Carlton Golf Course at a place called Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz., his words were heard but brushed aside.

A few days later, however, with McIlroy having dispatched formidable foes named Louis Oosthuizen, Hunter Mahan, and Tim Clark, in the World Golf Championship Accenture Match Play, Chandler’s words gained respectable validation from Geoff Ogilvy.

“He is,” Ogilvy said of McIlroy, “the real deal. My caddie (Alistair Matheson) said to me, ‘If you want to be the second-best player in the world, you’ve got to be better than Rory,’” Ogilvy said.

Matheson’s concession at the time was to the unquestioned supremacy of Woods, who for nearly 10 years had been No. 1 for all but 32 weeks when he had been interrupted by Vijay Singh. And then, when least people expected, there was the post-Thanksgiving fireworks at Isleworth in Winderemere Fla.: Woods backed his car out of his driveway and into a hydrant, opening the floodgates to a personal-life meltdown and a fall from grace, first off the course, then on.

In shocking fashion, the door to golf’s penthouse was left wide open. In time, McIlroy moved across the threshold.

In unison, many in the golf world smiled.

Golf-wise, nothing he has done in his five-plus years as a professional puts McIlroy on par with what Woods did in a relative stretch of time. If you want the numbers, here they are: McIlroy in 131 tournaments on the European and PGA Tours has nine wins, two of them majors. Woods in his first 131 piled up 38 victories, eight being of the major flavour.

Ah, but numbers are cold and tell an impersonal story and pro sports, especially in golf where fans get up close and personal, remains about the people.

Where McIlroy outshines Woods and is in position to re-invent the stature of being No. 1 is with personality and the human touch, aspects that were never part of the Woods agenda. Seemingly a force on the golf stage forever, one thing defined Woods — his mission was to make on-course history, not friends. Clearly, he achieved the former and it would be hard to argue against him doing likewise on the latter, especially with the media, which has struggled for eternity, it seems, to connect with the game’s greatest player.

It was been a fruitless endeavour. Woods chose early on to be guarded and cold and never let the media get close and never has he strayed from his philosophy. Never has anyone talked so much without saying anything of substance.

Similarly, the public has been kept at a distance, and while a good number of fans are infatuated by Woods’ golf accomplishments, many have bemoaned the lack of time devoted to autographs and smiles, his obscene language, and a refusal to mix up his schedule so that fans in different cities get a chance to see him.

All of this has added up to a curious legacy for Woods — unmatched as a golfer, he has been scrutinised for a number of human shortcomings, at times reprimanded by none other than Hall of Famer Tom Watson and Augusta National GC chairman Billy Payne.

Into this aftermath, enter McIlroy, who has proved what many in the media and golf fandom had suggested for years was possible — that world-class golf and major championships can be attained while in possession of an infectious personality and boyish demeanour.

“You know, he’s become very single-minded in his sort of quest to be the world’s best player,” said Graeme McDowell, “and I’ve just been impressed with how well he’s done it, how much he’s matured and stepped up and really kind of handled the new kind of stratosphere that he’s turned into as a player.”

In the warm twilight of a South Carolina night four months ago, McIlroy had been led on a whirlwind of a celebratory march by PGA of America officials. Having won by eight strokes, the newest PGA champion had gone from the trophy presentation to a meet-and-greet with PGA of America officers, then granted photographers’ requests to pose with the glistening hardware on the beach. Autographs were signed for dignitaries inside the ropes and then McIlroy was hustled off into the media centre for what turned out to be at least a 40-minute session.

And then he was dismissed?

Not quite, because waiting outside the media centre were perhaps two dozen European golf writers and there would be no arm-twisting, no shouts, no demands. McIlroy saw them, smiled, and knew he had an obligation. What was not lost in the passing of time is this memory of that evening: When finally it was time to go, McIlroy shook hands and said “thank you” to the reporters.

His is a golf story that mirrors Woods’ in so many ways. Each is an only child who thus was afforded great parental attention and guidance. But whereas Earl Woods on many occasions was connected to his son’s development, Gerry McIlroy once stopped a reporter when talk rolled around to how he raised Rory. “You know,” he said, “I have nothing to do with Rory’s golf.”

Credit, instead, Michael Bannon for what many feel is the best swing in golf.

That noted, Gerry and Rose McIlroy should take credit for having raised a personable young man who seems to see his golf talent as a gift and the riches that come from it as blessings. With McIlroy, there is not a sense of arrogance that many suggest has developed from Woods’ mistrust of the media. His stay atop the world golf rankings is unlikely to match that of Woods — 623 weeks on 10 different stints since 1997 — but most assuredly it will be accompanied by far more personality.

McIlroy’s menu for 18 holes and beyond

BEFORE

“If I’m playing in the morning, I’ll get some carbs early: porridge with chopped banana. If I’m playing in the afternoon, I’ll start with less carbs and have some eggs and fruit for breakfast, then a light lunch about 90 minutes before I play, so I don’t feel sluggish or full.”

DURING

“On the course, I sometimes eat a little sandwich or a slow-release energy bar — one on the front nine and one on the back nine. You’re out there five hours, so you have to keep eating. You’re going to burn at least 1,000 calories. I’ll try to take in about 400-600 calories during a round and drink water.”

AFTER

“As soon as I finish a round, I’ll have a mix of carbs and protein, as that helps the protein be absorbed quicker. Low GI is the key: if you have bread, have brown bread.”


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