Saturday 18 November 2017

Dealing with the challenge of being Rory

Rory McIlroy has recognised that it's all about the Majors, writes Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy

Dermot Gilleece

The rapid maturing of Rory McIlroy has become one of the great fascinations of the current tournament scene. And the capacity to combine courtesy with class seems certain to make him a popular champion among his peers.

Competitive destiny can be shaped as much by how players accept setbacks as by their attitude towards success. In this context, McIlroy has compiled some serious experience recently.

Five weeks ago, high expectations at Augusta National culminated in a dispiriting slide to a 40th place finish. Then came a play-off defeat by Rickie Fowler at Quail Hollow. And with a second-round 76, he missed the cut in the Players Championship for a third time in three attempts.

His reaction at Sawgrass on Friday was especially commendable, to the extent that he managed to share laughter with persistent scribes who wondered if he would concede defeat to the course. "No, I'll be back," he said. "Promise?" "I promise. Hopefully I'll be coming back here for another 20 years and if I don't figure it out by then, there's something wrong."

Similarly impressive has been his acknowledgement of some silly outbursts in the recent past and his handling of media-contrived rivalries, whether with Tiger Woods or Fowler. All of which can't be easy for someone just turned 23, who has been installed 8/1 favourite to successfully defend the US Open title at The Olympic Club, San Francisco next month.

In their desperate need for a golfing hero to replace an emotionally-damaged Woods, Americans have turned to Fowler as a

possible saviour. Yet Paddy Power bookmakers rate him no better than a 40/1 chance for the US Open in which Woods, interestingly, is second favourite at 9/1.

Meanwhile, by way of explaining fluctuations in form, McIlroy said: "There are going to be occasions where you catch fire and maybe play a 36-hole stretch in 15-under or something like that. It would be nice to know when this was going to happen or how often, but you really don't know these things. I'm just glad it happens once or twice a year. My objective is to try and put myself in contention more often so I can win maybe without having that explosiveness on an given week. For me, that's the real key to becoming a better player.

An obvious empathy between himself and Fowler dates back to the Walker Cup at Royal Co Down in early September 2007 when the young American was in a winning partnership against McIlroy and Jonathan Caldwell in the top foursomes on the second day. One imagines Fowler looking long and longingly at the marvellous technique of his Irish rival. And when asked about McIlroy in Sawgrass, he was honest enough to admit: "I've watched him and stayed up with his career."

For his part, McIlroy retains fond memories of Fowler at the Walker Cup. "I felt like he was the best player on that [US] team at the time, and he was also the nicest guy," he said generously.

Though of quite similar build, there is no comparison in the distances they hit the golfball. Standing 5ft 9ins in a relatively slight frame of 11st 6lbs, McIlroy has been targeting specific areas of physical development in regular visits to the gym. The outcome had one scribe lending rare, American accuracy to the term "awesome" when referring colourfully to the way McIlroy had "plastered some tee-shots" at Quail Hollow last weekend.

These were efforts of up to 377 yards with the driver and as long as 339 yards with a three-wood. "I'm just trying to turn behind it a little bit more; keep my height," he explained. "When I do that, I usually connect with it pretty well."

Brian Patterson, a seasoned Northern Ireland teaching professional from Newtownstewart, attempted to put the McIlroy phenomenon into layman's terms for me. "Next time you have the opportunity of seeing Rory, watch the way he finishes the swing," he said. "To me, it is one of the greatest examples of re-cocking I've ever seen. That's the total commitment he gives to every shot. You don't see him backing off and trying to hold the ball with the back of the left hand going through like a cricket player. He lets the club go. Christy [O'Connor] Senior comes to mind as one of the great re-cockers of the club. But there's not many of them around."

The power source was further explained by his coach Michael Bannon. "On the way down, where he makes such a good angle, Rory has a pretty late hit," he said. "If you can imagine your left arm and the club-shaft and the angle between the two of them: he holds onto his angle until just the right time. I suppose it was taught over a period of years. There's a way of doing it so that you don't throw the club too early in the swing. That, the straight left arm and full turn combined with his leg-drive, gives him enormous power. And he's flexible as well. It's a great unit."

His return to Sawgrass gave McIlroy the opportunity of putting right some ill-conceived comments on Twitter, diminishing the status of the Players Championship 12 months ago, when he was a somewhat petulant absentee. "Looking back, it wasn't one of my brightest moments," he admitted with admirable candour. And when he goes to Royal Lytham in July, one can imagine a similar admission from him about remarks he made at Royal St George's to the effect that he wasn't going to change his (high ball-flight) style of play, simply to suit the Open Championship.

As part of the maturing process, he has come to understand that the Majors, and sustained periods as world No 1 will define his career; that these objectives will become his raison d'etre as one of the game's great players. That is why Quail Hollow last weekend and then the Players were effectively no more than important elements of his preparation for the US Open.

"Basically, the most important time for me in the golf season is from the start of April until the end of August," he said. "That's when all the big tournaments are and that's when you want to play your best golf. All the stuff either side of this period is essentially preparation work, making sure that your game is getting ready and your body is prepared."

Meanwhile, there is an awareness of a significant difference in status this year. "Being a Major champion does change your life," he said. "It doesn't happen to many people and it lifts you from being a top-class player into maybe the elite. The highest prize we have in golf is to win one of the four Majors and I'm working hard to be able to call myself a multiple Major champion."

All of which creates inevitable problems in finding an equilibrium in his life, the sort that some players achieve through a happy marriage or business interests. It is something of which McIlroy is acutely aware. "For me, there's more to life than golf," he said. "I don't know if people are surprised to hear that, but I have a lot more going on in my life than just golf.

"Myself and Caroline (Wozniacki) both travel a lot. It's very important that you find time to do the things you want to do. After the Masters, I went back to Europe for two weeks and left my clubs in the States. So I didn't touch a club until Quail Hollow, though I've worked very hard since I got back."

Being Rory McIlroy is quite a challenge. Yet in the full glare of the world's media he is learning to cope, while winning many admirers along the way. Which is a remarkable achievement.

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