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Vincent Hogan: Rory seems almost startled by the life his gifted hands have given him

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A jubilant Rory McIlroy after winning the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, last Sunday, which saw him become the top-ranked golfer in the world. Photo: AP

A jubilant Rory McIlroy after winning the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, last Sunday, which saw him become the top-ranked golfer in the world. Photo: AP

A jubilant Rory McIlroy after winning the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, last Sunday, which saw him become the top-ranked golfer in the world. Photo: AP

Three years ago last weekend, Rory McIlroy went shopping with his dad at a mall in Palm Beach Garden. It was during the Honda Classic, the tournament McIlroy won last Sunday to go to the top of golf's world rankings. As they stepped from a courtesy car, the McIlroys were caught off guard by the sound of a welcoming voice.

"Hi, I thought that was you. I'm Jack Nicklaus!" beamed one of the most famous faces on the planet.

"Em, hello Mr Nicklaus" blurted Rory.

"Hi Jack" smiled his father, Gerry.

Nicklaus would recall saying to his wife, Barbara, that evening, "You won't believe who I ran into at the mall today."

McIlroy remembered only getting back in the car and scolding his embarrassing dad. "You don't call him Jack, he's Mr Nicklaus!"

The mortified teen is a man today, his name a burgeoning industry. At the top of his Twitter page, Rory McIlroy introduces himself as someone who hits "a little white ball around a field sometimes!"

What he doesn't say is that, right now, he does it better than anyone else alive.

If he understands the breadth of his achievement, it's a little hard to tell. Because he plays every tournament as if it's no more than the preliminary to a barbecue. He doesn't walk around a golf course, he jaunts over it, shoulders rocking faintly in the way of a kid ambling to a corner-shop.

McIlroy seems almost startled by the life his gifted hands have given him.

He can look geeky, especially behind those black, thick-rimmed spectacles he wore to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards before Christmas.

And he can sound startled when the world's media makes a fuss, as if he's just sneaked in under the ropes and picked up someone else's clubs. The late, great American sportswriter, Jim Murray, once described Ben Crenshaw as looking "like someone you'd like to take to a parade and buy a balloon".

That's McIlroy today. The gym may have changed his body, but the boyishness remains in that freckled, baby-face smile and the hair unruly as a floor-mop. America loves him.

That love comes, partly, from a sense of innocence lost by the unveiling of Tiger Woods's life as some kind of hard-core adult movie. Every flash of McIlroy's charm now reminds Americans of what they thought they had. With his gentle good manners and easy courtesy, McIlroy is the person America wanted Woods to be.

Yet, in what 'Sports Illustrated' has called "the post fire-hydrant era", there remains the palpable sense too that golf will not be complete again until Tiger's life and game are no longer spoken about as conflicting projects.

And maybe that was the biggest thrill golf took from South Florida on Sunday. The image of Woods firing a personal best final round 62 in a remarkable, albeit vain, bid to rein in McIlroy. If that was a signal of the old Tiger's imminent return, it isn't unreasonable to think of golf's immediate future as a two-name story.

McIlroy and Woods. Charisma and aura. Sunshine and darkness.

Trouble is, we still struggle to think of Rory McIlroy in that context. We see him date a beautiful professional tennis player (herself previously ranked the best in the world), we hear of the millions pouring into his bank account ($10m in endorsements alone), we see him tweet to 'friends' like Rafa Nadal and Wayne Rooney and, somehow, he looks mis-cast in that world.

He looks too ordinary, talks too gently, seems too shy.

But McIlroy is a global figure now, the corporate world desperate to pin names on anything he wears. He has built a mansion back home in Hollywood, with golf holes cut into the back garden that he can adjust to simulate upcoming tournament conditions. He travels, routinely, by private jet.

Those of us worried by his decision to part from manager Chubby Chandler last October have had our answer. This is a man who stopped being a kid a long, long time ago.

We didn't quite recognise that when he slid his drive at the tenth on Masters Sunday 100 yards left of fairway and into countryside never previously seen on TV at Augusta. The two hours that followed were excruciating. McIlroy's collapse was popularly likened to Greg Norman's implosion against Nick Faldo in '96.

Norman was so touched by the public outpouring of sympathy after his final round 78 blew a six-shot lead, he took out ads in English and Australian newspapers to express his gratitude.

Last year, Chandler waited almost two weeks after the Masters before travelling to McIlroy's home outside Belfast. Expecting to encounter an emotional ruin, he was startled by what he found. McIlroy told his manager he couldn't understand the fuss. "It's only a golf tournament" he said. "I had a bad day, but I'm only 21 and I'm going to learn."

Two months later, he all but tossed the rest of golf into a nervous breakdown by utterly dominating the US Open at Congressional. The man whose crown he was taking sounded almost wistful, as if the course had simply been battered by some epic force of nature.

"It's demoralising" sighed McIlroy's fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell. "He can do things to a golf ball that I can't -- that almost no one else can. He can fly it 340 down the middle, then land a three iron as soft as a butterfly with blisters.

"Golf is hard for the rest of us. It's a struggle. He makes the game look so easy, it's a joke."

Rory McIlroy got to the top of the world on a Jack Nicklaus-designed course last weekend. The old champion says he likes McIlroy's "moxie".

Golf has never looked cooler.

Irish Independent