Augusta Natural: how Rory became man of destiny at the Masters
Published 04/04/2015 | 02:30
THE question to Rory McIlroy is plain and straight: his answer honest, intriguing. Is your love of golf still as strong as when you were hitting a ball around Holywood as a small boy?
"No," McIlroy replies. "When I was a kid, if I spent a day away from the game, I couldn't wait to get back. "Now I can't wait for a week off," he adds, smiling.
That feeling's shared by every working stiff on the planet. Except in McIlroy's case, it lends fascinating insight into his journey from child prodigy to man of destiny.
Next week on the most hallowed turf in sport, McIlroy, just 25, bids to become only the sixth player in history and first European to win all four Majors: the so-called career Grand Slam.
Victory at the Masters will place McIlroy alongside Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen in one of golf's most exclusive clubs.
Unlike his glittering record at the other three Majors, McIlroy's efforts at Augusta National since his debut in 2009 are dominated by one spectacular failure.
Yet the remarkable resilience which allowed him recover from that nightmare Sunday at the 2011 Masters to win the first of his four Majors, the US Open, 70 days later now is reinforced by unwavering self-belief.
McIlroy has grown so much over the past 15 months, taking command of himself on the course and ownership of his personal life and business interests off it, that he truly has become 'The Man' in world golf.
Just as the ripped physique he has developed under the watchful eye of physiologist Dr Steve McGregor lends him the strength and stability to control his club throughout his explosive swing, the confidence McIlroy gleaned from his stellar Major wins last year ensures a markedly different Rory will drive up Magnolia Lane next week.
Inevitably, anger still occasionally flashes like Florida sunlight off the shaft of that 3-iron as it spiralled far into the lake at Doral last month. Yet gone is the kid who used struggle sometimes to contain that nuclear fusion of genius and desire. These days his shoulders stay square even through adversity, and he pouts no more.
McIlroy's body language no longer offers opponents any quarter. He has become a lean, hard-eyed, Major-winning machine in the mould of Nicklaus or Woods.
So, for sure, he doesn't love golf with the same abandon as a child.
"It's nothing to do with the game," McIlroy says, then grapples for words that adequately explain how his perception has changed. "It's just. . . it's more. . . look, I still love the game. I love going out and playing great golf courses and playing with my friends and playing with my dad.
"I'd be being dishonest if I said I loved the game (in the same way as he did as a kid). I don't love it like that. (Back then) it was just pure joy to be able to get on the golf course and play. I never wanted to get away from it.
"Now I can leave the clubs alone for a week and be totally fine,. I need that (time off) because I am playing a more intense style of golf.
"I haven't worked a day in my life. This isn't a job," McIlroy readily admits. "But I play in an intense environment now and sometimes it's just nice to get away from it for a while.
"I still love going and practising and hitting the ball, but just not quite as much as I used to. I guess I love it in a different way.
"I love being in contention, I love winning tournaments," McIlroy says, giving a little peep into his soul as he does on: "Golf is the only thing I'm really competitive at.
"I don't care if I lose at anything else. I'll let anyone else win a game of pool or whatever just to keep them happy. But I'm very competitive at golf because it's the one thing I know I'm really good at. If I lose or don't play well, I'm disappointed."
Throughout his life, those competitive instincts were honed by dreams of Major glory.
Paul Gray, teaching pro at Holywood Golf Club told John McAuley of 'The National' newspaper in Dubai of constantly finding scribbled scorecards the boy Rory used leave scattered around his shop.
"The content was prophetic," wrote Belfast man McAuley. "Competition: Open Championship, then a litany of birdies and eagles tallied in the column reserved for the player's strokes: at the bottom a confidently scrawled signature."
"It was always an incredible score, like eight or nine-under," said Gray, now the club's general manager. "He'd sign it 'Rory McIlroy' In the marker's box it was either 'Nick Faldo' or 'Tiger Woods'.
"At the time I didn't think anything of it but, looking back, I realise he was dreaming big even then. I found them all the time, just sitting about, so I'd chuck them away. Wish I'd kept them now!"
McIlroy has proven spectacularly successful at making those dreams come true, already winning four Majors in a 90-month professional career that has yielded €38.39m on the course.
Including sponsorship, endorsements and appearance fees, McIlroy's gross earnings can be estimated at around €150m.
The licensing deal he has signed with EA Sports for the Rory McIlroy PGA Tour computer game offers further commercial confirmation that he has replaced Tiger as the new face of golf.
McIlroy disputes that tag. "It's a hard one for me to fathom. I don't feel like golf needs a face," he insists. "Golf's going to be around a lot longer than we all are.
"Tiger Woods was the face of the game to the general public. I don't think I'll ever be that because of who I am, who he is and what he represents to the people he brought to the game with all his success.
"I'm never going to be able to do all that. It's just not possible. Maybe I'm more prominent than some of the others right now because of the success I've had recently but that might change. It might continue. I hope it does."
McIlroy is grateful for a relatively normal life. "I enjoy my life as it is now," he says. "I feel I can still walk around and do things I want to do for the most part. Occasionally, there are times I can't just do what I'd like but I don't ever envisage getting to a level where it's going to get uncomfortable."
Being so much in the public's eye occasionally made him feel ill-at-ease as a teenager as people heaped expectations upon him when "I didn't feel I'd yet got to that level".
"It sort of started at 13, I wasn't really comfortable with my game either. Just everything, it all felt a little too much for me," he admits. "But I'm much more comfortable with it when I'm playing well. When I'm contending in tournaments, I feel comfortable."
Unlike Tiger, who grew up with the record 18 Majors won by Jack Nicklaus embroidered on his soul, McIlroy has never been motivated by the achievements of others.
"I never looked at records really," he says. "It's just what I wanted to do myself. There's an interview with me when I'm seven or eight and I'm saying I want to win all four Majors, I want to be the best golfer in the world. That's what I've always wanted to do."
Having emerged victorious from several career crises, most recently rebounding from a disastrous year in 2013 to win the Australian Open, BMW PGA, British Open, Bridgestone World Golf Championship, US PGA and this year's Dubai Desert Classic in 13 mercurial months, McIlroy knows his destiny rests entirely in his own hands.
"Now more than ever it's all self-motivation," he explains, carefully choosing his words in an effort not to appear presumptuous. "I'm not looking at other guys on the range. I just want to be the best player I can be because I know if I can achieve that, hopefully it's going to be better than anyone else.
McIlroy's words still ring with confidence. "If I make myself as good as I can be, there's a good chance I can win golf tournaments and give myself the chance to win Majors."
Setbacks like that recent missed cut at Honda or his failure to contend at Doral or Bay Hill are mere bumps on the road.
Even major life-changing events, like breaking up with fiancée Caroline Wozniacki last May or his legal battle with former management company, Horizon, settled in Dublin's Four Courts in February at a reputed price of €27m (plus costs) to McIlroy, were taken in his stride.
He won at Wentworth within days of ending his engagement to Wozniacki, while the constant rumbling of legal thunder last year didn't appear to distract him one whit. Indeed, might the lawsuit even have helped deflect McIlroy from the enormity of his upcoming task at Augusta during the long void after Valhalla?
"With all the other stuff going on over the last 12 months, it has been a nice release to get on the golf course and play," he says, before joking: "Now I don't have that, I don't know what I'm going to do!
"I guess it proves that under any pressure that I feel on the golf course or off it, I'm able to separate the two. That's something I felt I did really well last year.
"Hopefully, everything in my life is settled. I don't envision ever having to do that again but if I do, at least I know I can do it."
More to the point, McIlroy's rivals know after his victories in the past two Majors, if he gets his nose in front at Augusta, he now has the maturity, confidence and cold killer instinct to finish the job.