Who is Rory McIlroy? That's probably something we should have decided by now.
But as his remarkable rollercoastering career lurches into an Augusta bend which is likely to raise those follicles yet further, his own words should at least advise us of who Rory McIlroy definitely is not.
Sitting down with him in San Antonio last week in a quiet cubby hole at an appropriately plush hotel, the 23-year-old feels obliged to expand on what sensitive souls considered an utterly outrageous statement at the Texas Open. That seems the way it always is for McIlroy nowadays: explaining himself. Why did he change clubs, why did he walk off, why did he sound off?
This latest “controversy” concerned McIlroy saying he would not care if he missed 10 cuts in a row if he won a major a year. “Just imagine Tiger ever admitting that,” went the cry. Yes, just imagine. Perhaps McIlroy is not Tiger Woods, the phenom to whom everyone long ago declared he was heir.
After all, McIlroy has already missed more cuts in five years as a pro than Woods has missed in his 17 years. Furthermore, is not there something ever so slightly different in their personalities, if not their ambitions?
“Things seem to happen to me, things that tend to generate headlines,” McIlroy said. “That’s not a bad thing. I don’t want to compare myself to anyone, but if you look at Phil Mickelson, that’s why so many people are drawn to him.
“He’s either way up or he’s down. Those highs and lows make him seem more real, less like a machine. That’s why the public loves Ronnie O’Sullivan. They see the human in him; because everybody has good days and bad days. Now, I hope I’m not as extreme as Ronnie or some others. But I do feel as if there will always be highs and lows in my career.”
What else could he think after the six months between these last two majors? After winning the US PGA by eight strokes, McIlroy was hailed as Mr Infallible as he proceeded to win four of six starts against the very best opposition. He went into Christmas rivalling Santa in the popularity stakes. But then he signed a £78 million deal to swap to Nike and in the tumult of critics so generously reminding him of hubris, he began 2013 as Mr Unfathomable.
There were extended breaks, missed cuts, first-round knock-outs in World Matchplays, petulant mid-round withdrawals. Augusta loomed like an appointment in golfing hell instead of the golfing heaven he claims it to be.
McIlroy never lost hope. Among all the wailing he pointed out he had suffered these blips before and had always bounced back. Indeed, he did so at Kiawah Island in August. Like he said, if the same happens again this week, then how could he possibly bemoan these dips in form?
“We always go on about consistency but I always stop and think: ‘What if I finished 10th every week?’” McIlroy said. “I’d make a great living, be in all the great events – but it’d be pretty dull. I’d never get that feeling that I’ve beat everyone there is to beat that week, that incredible buzz. I know it doesn’t have to be a trade off, but all I’m saying is that if I have to take the down moments to experience those huge highs, then I’ll take them, sure.”
McIlroy seems to think a lot about what it must be like in the engine room of his profession. The fact is, he will never know because of the fortune he is amassing. Today, Omega will announce it is endorsing McIlroy, having prevailed in the fight of the watchmakers to wrap itself around the young man’s wrist. McIlroy is aware what will be muttered by the cynics.
“It’s a brilliant fit for me, as they don’t endorse too many and if you look at who they do – George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Michael Phelps, Greg Norman – you will see the calibre. Omega is a great brand that is heavily involved in sports and in golf and stretches out to all parts of the globe,” he said.
“I’m excited, but be honest, I’ve announced three deals this year – Nike, Bose, Omega – and I’d like to cool if off a little bit now. It’s like ‘hey, let’s calm it down a while’.”
It is wise for McIlroy to put his foot on the corporate breaks and not simply because the begrudgers will begrudge. “Obviously I’m lucky the position I’m in – I get companies approaching me,” he said. “There are so many we have to say no to, because we can’t go around having 25 sponsors – it just doesn’t work. Not with all the commitments.
“It’s up to me, adding up how many days my current sponsors are looking for. So Nike wants X amount of days, Bose want this, Santander this, Omega this. So that makes up to, say 15 days. Well, that’s 15 days when I can’t do what I actually did to get me here – practise.”
So why do any then? “Because it actually frees me up to think solely about my golf and not about the money we’re playing for,” he said. “That’s actually a huge thing. Look, there are hundreds of Tour pros who would love to have that privilege. I never have to think ‘if I hole this 10-footer it’s worth this amount of money’.
“It’s like when I signed the Nike deal, I thought ‘I’ll never have to worry about money again’. Yeah, I was already set for life, but it really was a case of ‘all I need to do now is concentrate on golf’. I don’t have any concerns about one day putting my kids through university and any other financial stiff really. I know how lucky I am.”
With sponsors come demands, however, and sometimes not just on time for photoshoots. But McIlroy is keen to point out he remains his own man, his own professional. Maybe this is best exemplified in the negotiations with Omega.
The firm happens to be the official Olympic timekeeper and with golf being re-introduced after a 112-year absence,
Omega inevitably wanted to know about McIlroy’s plans. The trouble is so do too many zealots in Ireland and the United Kingdom, which is why he may well elect out of it altogether. “Of course, it’s one of the big things that came up when we were talking to Omega,” he said. “But my answer was ‘if I feel like I can play I’ll play’. This is more purely a golf thing as they’re trying to expand in the sport.
“They sponsor Dubai, the European Masters at Crans, the USPGA, the Ryder Cup, although I don’t have to play in their events if it doesn’t suit me.”
What does suit McIlroy is the Masters – or it should. In his four previous visits to the cathedral of pines, his best finish is a tie for 15th. He calls it his “favourite tournament of the year” but is fair to say the infatuation is not reciprocated. Love might be cruel on occasion, but even the Marquis de Sade would surely be baffled at McIlroy’s Augusta affection.
“It’s a golf course not a person!” McIlroy said. “And the way I see it is that it’s actually like saying you don’t like someone because of something they said years ago. Get over it, move on. The 10th, that’s one of my favourite holes anywhere and people ask how can you say that after what it did for you, with that seven and the cabin and everything [on his way to a final-round 80 at the 2011 Masters]? It didn’t do anything to me – I did it to me. I’ve learned how to play that hole, learned not hit to driver. They say the more you go back to Augusta the more you know where not to bite off too much.”
Yet McIlroy refuses to accept he is hardened to Augusta’s charms. “It feels like the first time every time – it’s hallowed turf,” he said.
“You say you’re over the ’wow’ factor, but you’re not really. Even last year I was there on the Friday the week before, it’s 6pm and it’s just JP and me on the range. I stopped, looked around and whispered: ‘JP, this is unbelievable, look around. It’s you and me at Augusta and there’s absolutely nobody else in sight.’ It was strange, surreal. I never want to lose that feeling. Sometimes you just have to step back and try to appreciate it. But yes, it does take some appreciating.”
After his impressive second place finish at Valero last night when he finished two shots behind Scot Martin Laird, McIlroy is perfectly poised for a bold showing.