McIlroy ready to become the next American idol
THE great adventure will begin for Rory McIlroy and American golf fans in the Sonoran Desert today when he strikes the opening shot of his 'new' career as a full member of the US PGA Tour.
McIlroy (20) is odds-on favourite to beat Kevin Na, six years his senior, in the first round of the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship on the 7,489-yard Jack Nicklaus layout on Dove Mountain, just north of Tucson, Arizona.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed in 18-hole match play, which adds to the excitement as 64 of the world's finest available players go head-to-head on what has become one of the most dramatic days of the golfing year.
McIlroy first introduced himself to American galleries here 12 months ago, making an instant impression with his flair, his unruly hair and a series of man-sized performances as he swept into the quarter-finals.
A year on, the Holywood youngster seemed at a loss to explain how much his life has changed in the interim.
"I don't know, I've gotten two new dogs!" he replied. "I like to think I haven't changed at all."
In fact, McIlroy has by necessity become a harder, tougher, more formidable player.
Though he'd already claimed his first European Tour victory in Dubai a couple of weeks before last year's visit to Dove Mountain (and hasn't won since), making the cut at all four Majors in 2009 and a procession of top-six finishes have lifted him above Padraig Harrington to No 8 in the world rankings.
People no longer have any hesitation in heaping expectation on his shoulders. As he takes out his full US card, McIlroy is viewed within the game as a young man capable of filling some of the vacuum left by Tiger Woods.
PGA Tour membership requires him to play at least 15 events on the US roster, including the four Majors and three World Championships. As a result, McIlroy will play 10 times in the States and just once in Europe (May's BMW PGA) in the run-up to June's US Open.
Yet the most significant difference in his schedule will occur in the autumn, if he qualifies for the four-tournament FedEx Cup play-offs. Throw in October's Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor and you've quite a bottleneck at that time.
For the moment, McIlroy has resisted the temptation to buy or rent property in the States, preferring to punctuate short stints in the US with fortnight-long breaks at home.
Significantly, on only one occasion before the summer will he play more than two weeks in a row (Bay Hill, Houston, Masters), which should help keep at bay the back strain which flared up during Europe's Desert Swing and undermined his title defence in Dubai. Though he felt slight discomfort after playing 18 holes yesterday, McIlroy insists he's fighting fit and ready to face Na, a player who's been edging ever closer to his first PGA Tour win.
The difference between playing in Europe and the USA is the sheer size of the galleries in the States and the 'big-time' atmosphere at every event there -- and McIlroy loves that buzz.
It took an outstanding performance by Geoff Ogilvy to beat him in last year's quarter-final. This time, McIlroy has fellow Irishmen Graeme McDowell and Harrington in his half of the draw.
If he and good mate McDowell make it through their first two matches, they'll collide in the third round. Should the winner then make it to Saturday's semi-final, Harrington could provide the opposition.
Of the Irish trio, McIlroy seems best-equipped to challenge defending champion Ogilvy's near invincibility (the Aussie has lost only two of 19 matches at the Accenture).
Harrington needs to shoot far more birdies than he did at Riviera and Pebble Beach, while McDowell must putt considerably better than in Dubai to have a chance here.
Much is made of Europe's 24-man invading force, including the magnificent Molinaris -- Francesco and Edoardo -- who won last November's World Cup for Italy and are the first brothers to play in a World Golf Championship.
England is strongly represented. Though Lee Westwood and strutting peacock Ian Poulter have taken the spotlight, last year's beaten finalist Paul Casey and Volvo Match Play champion Ross Fisher have better victory credentials. Yet for sheer excitement, our American cousins need look no further than McIlroy.
WGC Accenture Match Play Championship, Live, Sky Sports 1, 7.0