Rory took the Aussie Open from under Adam Scott's nose – next he'll rip the Green Jacket off his back
Difficult year ends with stunning reminder of Major ability
NOWHERE is 'The Sound of Silence' more imposing than in a jam-packed sports arena. We Irish heard it at Lansdowne Road last Sunday week when All Black kicker Aaron Cruden delivered the coup de grace to our rugby dreams.
So we know precisely how Australia felt when Rory McIlroy rolled in a 12-foot birdie putt at the death in Royal Sydney on Sunday to deny their new golfing icon, Adam Scott, a rare Aussie 'triple crown'.
The hush which descends for a putt in golf or a rugby conversion can be oppressive, but when thousands are then struck dumb by the desolation of sudden defeat, it lends new meaning to the term 'deafening silence'.
As the muted crowds melted away from that final green at the Australian Open, the mood in the TV commentary booth was almost funereal. They had come to praise Scott, but McIlroy buried him.
Along with a lot of Aussie hearts, McIlroy shattered his own 12-month drought at Royal Sydney, so it won't be surprising in the least if he eclipses tournament host Tiger Woods and defending champion Graeme McDowell in this week's Northwestern Mutual Challenge at Sherwood Country Club.
Having said goodbye to darkness, which hung around like an old friend all year, McIlroy has carte blanche to become a real world-beater once again.
With apologies to Scott, who has achieved near-Greg Norman status in his homeland since breaking Australia's jinx at this year's US Masters, McIlroy is perfectly equipped to take that Green Jacket off his back at Augusta next April.
AUSSIE PROS RATE RORY AS TIGER'S HOTTEST RIVAL
EVEN before he won in Sydney, seasoned golf observers still viewed Rory McIlroy as the outstanding threat by far to Tiger's status as world No 1.
McIlroy has been striping his golf ball for the past couple of months, so it was only a matter of time and a few favourable results before the 24-year-old's confidence, badly drained during a dismal season, would be fully replenished.
It was interesting to listen to a radio blog recorded Down Under last week in which Mike Clayton, a noted Aussie pro turned pundit, course designer and coach, spoke of walking 12 holes with McIlroy in practice.
Clayton (56) was carrying the bag of Australian prodigy Ryan Ruffels (15), who got the chance to play with Ulster's world No 6 through Nike.
Yet the older man was blown away by the quality of McIlroy's golf.
"I hadn't seen Rory play for a long time; I mean the fact that he hasn't won a tournament this year is pretty amazing," Clayton enthused.
"If the evidence of the 12 holes of ball-striking I saw is the measure of how he's playing, he's just a beautiful player. He's long and he hits beautiful iron shots. He hit some great short shots too.
"He hit it over the back of the sixth and Ryan said, 'you don't want to hit it in there'. But Rory landed his ball in the fringe, it ran down, hit the hole and jumped out. The seventh hole is a former long par-five, probably the best par-five (at Royal Sydney) and he just murdered it with a 360-yard drive and a five-iron.
"I met Geoff Ogilvy later and I said, 'wow, I just saw McIlroy play'. I know Geoff can exaggerate a little at times but he said, 'yeah, (Rory is) way better than Scottie'.
"Everyone knows Adam plays great golf, but Geoff is just huge on McIlroy and he said this kid's amazing.
"So (Rory has) had a lousy year and, in a sense, has fumbled through the issues with the management company, Oakley sunglasses and changing his clubs, but I can't imagine him not having a great year next year."
FEW GREEN SHOOTS
FOR SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC PUTTER
ADAM SCOTT may be a match for McIlroy off tee and fairway, but his short game and his putting aren't in the same league.
Always blessed with a deft touch around the green, McIlroy has become a more confident and consistent putter since 2011, when he started working with US guru Dave Stockton, a two-time US PGA champion and winning 1991 Ryder Cup captain.
World No 3 Scott blew his one-stroke lead with bogey five at 18 on Sunday after hitting "the wrong club" through the back of the green into a tricky lie.
He chipped poorly to two-putt country and McIlroy holed out for birdie to wrap up a sweet closing 66 and one of the most telling of his 11 career wins.
However, Scott's four-stroke overnight lead had dwindled on the greens at Royal Sydney as he took 35 putts in the final round, against 24 during Thursday's course-record 62.
Though he had brilliantly set up and then closed out his sudden-death victory over Angel Cabrera at April's Masters, Scott's occasional tendency to finish poorly was exposed for all to see last Sunday.
It's sobering to think any issues Scott (33) has now will not be helped when the 'anchored' broom-handle putter, which has helped make him a force at the Majors since 2011, is outlawed in January 2016.
'MESSI' MCILROY GOOD ENOUGH TO RUN RINGS AROUND HIS RIVALS
FIVE victories in 18 tournaments this year make Tiger Woods a cast-iron favourite to break his five-year hex at the Majors in 2014.
Given his penchant for winning on familiar courses, a fit Woods should relish his return to Hoylake, where he lifted the Claret Jug in 2006, and then Valhalla for the US PGA, where he famously beat Bob May in a play-off for the Wanamaker Trophy in 2000.
Were it not for a quiet week with his putter, Tiger would have put a lot more pressure on winner Michael Campbell at the 2005 US Open at Pinehurst, which next June welcomes that championship back to North Carolina.
Woods really will fancy his chances at Augusta. Indeed, had he not hit the flag with his superb approach to 15 on Friday at April's Masters, Woods might already have that elusive 15th Major in the closet.
Yet if Tiger is the ultimate predator, McIlroy ranks among the most naturally gifted golfer of his or any generation. He's blessed with enough charisma to rival legends like Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Arnie Palmer, Phil Mickelson or even Seve Ballesteros.
Watching him grow from boyhood in Ireland can render us immune to McIlroy's talent. We're too close to perceive what others do – that this guy is the George Best or Lionel Messi of golf.
HOLYWOOD HARD CASE WON'T BE FAZED BY FOUR COURTS SHOWDOWN
THOUGH clearly affected by off-course issues this season, one suspects McIlroy's form in 2014 will not be undermined by his ongoing legal battle with Horizon or the prospect of an October trial date at the Four Courts.
Already, Oakley have "amicably" settled their lawsuit with the Holywood native, while McIlroy, his coach Michael Bannon and Nike technicians have long resolved the confidence-sapping quandary of adjusting to new clubs while, at the same time, trying to identify glitches in the swing.
Though he's headstrong, appears controlling and definitely needs to be more accepting on the course, McIlroy is as tough, wily and sharp as any 24-year-old I've met. Indeed, recent efforts to portray him as "naive" or "soft" are laughable.
His delight to have Rory McIlroy Inc up and running since the autumn and to be master of his own destiny was clear on Sunday when he said: "Since the end of September I have just felt in a better place mentally with some things off the course.
"I've definitely felt better with how my swing was. I just feel everything is coming together the way I wanted it to."
Now McIlroy has gotten out of his own way, only Tiger bars his path to the top of the world.