Out of bounds
MOST accidents, we're told, happen in the home ... but for the superstars of professional golf, the front drive seems especially treacherous.
Weeks after his boyhood idol, Tiger Woods, bounced his car off a fire hydrant and rammed a tree in his neighbour's front garden, Rory McIlroy slid his powerful Audi R6 sports car through a hedge into next door's cabbage patch.
When the irony of his New Year's Eve mishap was pointed out, the youngster said: "I didn't have anyone chasing me!"
Instead, compacted snow had made an ice rink of the driveway at his luxury Co Down home and off the 20-year-old spun.
"I was crawling down the driveway," McIlroy said.
"There's a sharp left-hand bend and as I braked to turn into it, the car just slid. As it did, I thought to myself 'I know where this is going' -- straight into the hedge. I ended up in the neighbour's cabbage patch."
At least he'd left his spanking new Lamborghini in the garage.
A fan of Woods since age six and having first glimpsed the young Tiger during a live TV coverage of the 1996 US Amateur Championship, McIlroy admitted he had been taken aback at first by the revelations which followed Tiger's crash that fateful November night in Orlando.
Though the Holywood youngster's stunning golf game and rocket-like rise into the world's top 10 suggest he has a lot in common with Woods, McIlroy believes a solid piece of advice from his father, Gerry, at age 12 should help him steer clear of pitfalls in his future career.
"My dad always told me whenever I was growing up, there's always someone watching," said McIlroy, who used have a notoriously short fuse in his early days on the golf course.
"We were talking about bad temper, throwing clubs and all that stuff when I was trying to get on Irish teams. He said, 'It doesn't matter what you are doing or where, you can be certain somebody will is going to see you.'"
It's a lesson McIlroy has brought with him into the limelight of elite professional sport -- think carefully before you act, because you are almost certain to be called to account for anything you do.
While he expects recent calamitous events will make Woods appear less invincible to rivals on his return from an "indefinite hiatus", McIlroy believes Tiger will still achieve his lifelong ambition and top the record 18 Majors won by Jack Nicklaus.
"I always viewed Tiger as a great golfer," he said, when asked if his opinion of Woods had changed.
"Whenever I was watching him on television, I didn't care what he was like as a person -- to me he was just an awesome golfer. He's still a great golfer in everyone's eyes; he's just run into a bit of difficulty."
Asked if people generally expect too much from their sporting heroes, McIlroy said: "The public always wants more. Even I was disappointed when I heard what happened. Everyone thought 'aw no'. They were shocked because, obviously, he'd been doing it for a while.
"I can relate to him in one way," he said, explaining that the more famous a sportsman becomes, the easier it is "to get into something like that, while the more successful you get, you almost feel as if you are invincible in some way."
McIlroy hopes Woods will return sooner rather than later, both for his sake and his sport.
"In the short term, it'll be okay for golf that he's absent but the longer he's away, the worse it'll be.
"It's okay if he's away for three months, six months, whatever but the sooner he comes back the better. When he does, we can all put this debacle behind us and get back to concentrating on Tiger playing great golf as he always does."
After a five-week break over the festive season, McIlroy returns to competitive action in tomorrow's first round of the Abu Dhabi Championship with three wishes for 2010.
Over the next 12 months, the Holywood starlet is determined to break into the world's top five; convert a remarkable 13 top-five finishes last season into multiple tournament victories to go with his maiden Tour success in Dubai last February and become a leading contender at the four Majors.
That's some wish-list, but McIlroy has the golf game and the mental strength to deliver in his first season as a true 'world player' with full credentials on both the European and US Tours.
His commitment to 15 events on the US schedule will require McIlroy to play fewer in Europe but he still hopes to go one better than last November's dramatic second place to Lee Westwood in the inaugural Race to Dubai. "Though I'll play maybe two or three less European Tour events, if I can turn some of last year's top-fives into a win, that'd make a huge difference," he said.
"Obviously, the big purses at all the Majors and World Championships can help, so the Race to Dubai is still a big goal of mine."
McIlroy learned a lot about himself in 2009 as he made the cut at all four of golf's Majors and finished an impressive third behind YE Yang and Tiger Woods in last August's US PGA at Hazeltine.
Meanwhile, a draining run of seven tournaments in eight weeks at the end of the season clearly indicated where his physical limits lie and introduced him to a new concept: complete rest.
Exhaustion clearly was a factor as a viral infection, compounded by food poisoning, forced McIlroy to withdraw on Saturday morning from the season-ending Nedbank Challenge.
Indeed, he had looked so wretched on TV during that event that his mother, Rosemary, "was ringing my dad on his mobile telling him 'get him off that golf course'".
Since first picking up a golf club as a toddler, McIlroy had never taken a break from the sport but dire need led to five idyllic weeks at home.
"It was lovely to spend time with Holly (his girlfriend), Mum, Dad and the dog, just chilling out, not having to concentrate on winning over the next couple of weeks or getting into the top five, all the stuff that goes through your head when you're on Tour.
"You then realise, when you get back, how lucky you are to be out here doing this for a living."
Despite 10 days in 'boot camp' in Dubai with coach Michael Bannon, McIlroy might still be a little ring-rusty this week.
Yet so keen is his appetite, only a fool would bet against him winning in Abu Dhabi or staging a successful defence at the Emirates Club in a fortnight's time.
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