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Friday 18 April 2014

Momentous year forces McIlroy to get 'harder '

Rory McIlroy says that in quiet moments on his own, he cannot help reflecting with incredulity on a season of meltdown, magnificence and madness.

"I just think, from the incredible low of Augusta to the incredible high of Congressional, and everything that's happened since, it's probably going to be the defining year of my career," he muses.

McIlroy, in Scotland this week to play in the Dunhill Links Championship with his father Gerry, still looks like the same mop-headed kid that broke onto the scene, but he has had to grow up fast after his heartbreaking implosion at the Masters, his glorious redemption at the US Open, the subsequent madness of 'Rorymania' at Sandwich and now a romance with the world's No 1 tennis player, Caroline Wozniacki, which completes his transformation into one of sport's most compelling one-man soaps.

"I think it has to change you. You do have to get harder as a person and I've noticed that a little bit about myself already," he says.

"The Open was an eye-opener for me in a way, because I'd never really received that amount of attention before. You obviously want to try to be as open and honest as you possibly can, but with so much attention on you it's hard. You have to put a little bit of a shield up."

Everything he does now gets magnified. Take the other week when Lee Westwood tweeted about Miss Wozniacki's boyfriend being "half-Danish" to which McIlroy responded: "At least I'm not English".

This daft exchange was then translated back home in Belfast as being a 'Furious Twitter Row'.

"It wasn't a war! Me and Lee are very good mates; it was just good friendly banter," insists McIlroy, shaking his head.

There was, however, nothing too warm and fuzzy about McIlroy's angry tweet to American commentator Jay Townsend, telling him he was a "failed golfer" who should "shut up" following his criticism of McIlroy's caddie JP Fitzgerald.

"That was something that had built up over the last two or three years. I think every sport has guys who don't like certain commentators, it's just one of those things," he shrugs unapologetically, before conceding with a smile: "Twitter's a very powerful tool, but very dangerous too!"

So, was this an example of the new hard-as-nails Rory? He disabuses you of this with his charming reprise of the bloke the world fell for after his mind-blowing act at the US Open.

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"I still do find it hard to say 'no' to people, to all the requests. At the start after Congressional, I probably was a bit uncomfortable with all the madness, but once you get used to it, you can find your feet and it's okay.

"I've had to learn to deal with it, but it's a great problem to have. Anyway, it's definitely calmed down a bit."

That's largely down to him not having won since then. We now routinely expect wonders from the 22-year-old when it is easy to forget that, actually, he has still only ever won three professional tournaments.

Three top-six finishes in his last six events since Congressional do not meet the golfing world's great expectations. More importantly, they do not meet McIlroy's.

"I don't really care if other people think it's good enough. It's whether I think it is good enough and, to be honest, no it isn't. It's the best year I've ever had, but as with a lot of top-level sports people, you always think you should have done better."

Ask him if he believes that at Congressional he played golf like no one else could and his eyes light up: "Yeah, definitely. I know I've done that and now it's just a matter of being able to do that on a consistent basis.

"When I was 100pc, I won the US Open by eight shots, was six shots ahead in the final round in Dubai and, after being on the cut-line, and shot 16-under on the weekend to win Quail Hollow by four.

"So, when you're on, you kind of feel untouchable. I'd take it if this happened to me four or five times a year.

"But it's being able to win when you're not playing your best; that's the secret I want to find. Turning those second, third and fourth-placed finishes, when I'm not playing my best, into wins is basically what I'm trying to do now.

"On the course, in my mind I think I've changed a little bit too. Everyone says: 'Let it happen, don't force it', but I don't think that's the right way to go for me. I've got to say to myself, 'look, I'm good enough, I'm going to make this happen and win' instead of shrugging: 'Oh, we'll just go out and see what happens'.

"I'm getting a little bit more ruthless and maybe there's a bit more self- belief too."

That's the key to becoming world No 1, his next big aim. He reckons Westwood is catchable as No 2 by the end of the year, even if Luke Donald will take longer to overhaul next season when McIlroy plans to spend more time in the US Tour sunshine.

Yes, he says cheerily, we can call him a fairweather player.

"Being No 1 is not my principal aim -- the Majors are what I play for -- but if I do well in those big tournaments, then the No 1 spot should take care of itself. It's a great goal."

As for his personal life, he is clearly smitten by Wozniacki. The pair met at the David Haye- Wladimir Klitschko bout in Germany.

"Apart from the US Open, it's been a great thing for me this year," he says of their blossoming relationship. "We'll see where it goes, but at the minute it's great."

Did they inspire each other as athletes? "We're probably past that stage," he adds. "But we talk a little bit to each other about our sports, the mentality and mindset. It's great to be with someone who understands what you're going through. I'm very happy."

The other highlight of McIlroy's last year was his UNICEF trip to Haiti, where he was overwhelmed at meeting kids still smiling amid the nightmarish aftermath of the Caribbean nation's 2010 earthquake.

It was, he said, life changing. "It gave me such a huge dose of perspective, to remember that you're so fortunate to be doing what you do. You know, so lucky, having the golf course as your office. What a great life." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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