Rory McIlroy wants to become an icon like Tiger Woods, says Paul McGinley
Paul McGinley slips into philosophical mode. It is a radiant spring day by the Thames in Richmond and he is contemplating, at the close of a long and lively lunch at the Bingham Hotel, the pregnant question of what, if anything, could prevent Rory McIlroy becoming a greater star than Tiger Woods.
“The biggest challenge that Rory has got is keeping the fire lit,” he says, after a longer-than-usual pause. “Keeping it in his heart, that’s the biggest challenge anybody could have. That’s what made Tiger phenomenal. At the moment, Rory has it, that incredible passion. But for another 20 years? That is another question.”
It is a sign of the symbiosis between McGinley and McIlroy, Europe’s triumphant last Ryder Cup captain and his talisman extraordinaire, that Rory seems to think exactly the same. McIlroy acknowledged, only this past weekend, that golf no longer moved him as powerfully as if he was nine years old again, rushing off to Holywood Golf Club outside Belfast every spare moment and feeling deprived if he ever missed a day.
“I don’t love the game like I did back then,” he said, with what sounded like rueful nostalgia. But we should be wary of caricaturing McIlroy as a washed-up lounge lizard just yet.
For this Sunday, on the 18th green of Augusta National, he could translate his immense talent into a feat that stands in perpetuity. With a maiden Masters triumph, McIlroy would, at 25, be only the sixth inductee into golf’s grand-slam club, not to mention the second-youngest. To have his face etched on the Mount Rushmore of the game, besides Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen? It would be a watershed to make his career not simply fabulous but fabled. And it could, McGinley indicates, kindle even grander ambitions in a young man who has scrupulously avoided any mention of hunting down Woods’s 14 majors or – dare one whisper it – Nicklaus’s 18.
“What is clever about Rory is that he hasn’t put a number on how many majors he wants to win,” McGinley argues. “He’s not chasing anybody’s record. Is it all about winning titles for Rory? Is it about the Jose Mourinho model of trying to get as many medals and titles as you can? Or it could be a case of saying, 'I’m the No 1 player in the world, I represent a lot of people, and I am going to become like Tiger, an iconic figure in world sport, trying to propel the game forward and represent the game well? My hunch, knowing Rory, is that it is more about representing that No 1 position, while bringing as many titles along with it as he can.”
McGinley, since he was first appointed to lead Europe to glory at Gleneagles last September, has played something of a pedagogue to McIlroy, teaching him to find balance in his life and to rein in any excesses of youthful exuberance. “Over the two years of the Ryder Cup, Rory was so engaged with it,” he reflects. “Often, I would be walking away and he would pull me back to talk some more. I liked to keep my conversations with him short and sweet, because I wanted him to stay focused on his career. I was trying to keep him away from the Ryder Cup, but he wanted more and more, to share his ideas.”
The scale of McIlroy’s contribution in that Perthshire glen was reflected in his influence on Sergio García. The Spaniard was in a bleak mood after the first day’s play, having been described by Sir Nick Faldo as “useless” in a crass aside on US television. But McIlroy provided precious emotional support for the mercurial García, partnering him in the Saturday foursomes en route to a crucial victory over Jim Furyk and Hunter Mahan.
“Sergio had received criticism, and was on a low,” McGinley explains. “So, the fact that Rory put his arm on his shoulder and dragged him through that afternoon session prepared him for the singles, where both of them went out and won their matches. Rory didn’t play the role of the ultimate hero. Instead, he carried a lot of weight. He was mature, he shouldered responsibility.”
McIlroy saved his Ryder Cup masterpiece for the final day, when he thrashed Rickie Fowler 5 & 4. The capacity to produce such moments of perfection, in the fashion of his eight-stroke major victories at Congressional and Kiawah Island, augurs well for Augusta.
“He has that ability to tune in and fire it,” McGinley explains. “That little bit of streakiness is a great sign in a golfer. When he is driving the ball as well as he can, he is very intimidating. But if he wants to evolve to the heights that Tiger set, Rory has to improve his level of patience. Nicklaus always said that in winning any major, there was a high dependency on patience.”
The insights that McGinley acquired into McIlroy’s mind could make a book by themselves. Paul Azinger, the last successful US captain in 2008, enjoyed remarkable sales figures when he wrote up his experiences in Cracking The Code. But McGinley is adamant that no future beckons as a man of letters. “I’ve been approached a number of times, but no,” he says. “Being privy to all that information and trying to cash in on it? I don’t see that as the right thing to do.”
It is a loss to the sport’s literary canon. It would be fascinating, for instance, to discover the precise wording of the team talk imparted by Sir Alex Ferguson. McGinley does offer the tantalising detail that he approached the retired Manchester United manager for advice on how to handle McIlroy, but stops short of other specifics.
“I asked him, 'How do you deal with a David Beckham or a Ryan Giggs compared to the rest of the players? What kind of a mindset are you looking for? Is there anything I can do to help me manage Rory?’ ”
Whatever the answers Ferguson gave, they worked spectacularly. “It’s always difficult to relate to Rory, because he is on a completely different sphere,” McGinley says. “But I swear that I could not have asked for one more per cent out of him.”
This week, McGinley will be found in the studio as commentator for Sky Sports, the only network showing all four days of the Masters live ahead of its takeover of the Open coverage in 2017. And, should McIlroy prevail at Augusta, one senses that there will be no happier onlooker anywhere inside those gilded grounds.