How Rory McIlroy muscled his way to the top
GOLF'S 'Boy Wonder', Rory McIlroy has suddenly become 'The Man'. This transformation has taken place in the 12 months since McIlroy's meltdown at last April's US Masters.
The tousle-haired youngster who took a savage beating at Amen Corner has returned to Augusta National visibly stronger and mentally tougher than ever before.
McIlroy's swing and his temperament remain much the same, but these days he's got serious muscle to back it up.
The 22-year-old's strict dedication to a healthy diet and firm commitment to a daily fitness programme in the gym have yielded results plain for all to see.
Yet they are representative of many other major life changes McIlroy has made in the past year.
None was more significant, perhaps, than his parting last October from his old friend and mentor at International Sports Management, Chubby Chandler, to join Graeme McDowell at Dublin firm Horizon.
This decision saddened Chandler and startled golf, yet it perfectly illustrated McIlroy's determination to cut the sporting apron strings and take command of his own career.
While his harrowing collapse on Sunday at Augusta had been described by McIlroy as "a crossroads" in his development as a golfer, new girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki has also been a significant catalyst for change.
Since their first meeting at ringside at last July's world heavyweight clash between Wladimir Klitschko and David Haye in Hamburg, Wozniacki and her colleagues on the professional tennis tours opened McIlroy's eyes to a new level of fitness and physical intensity.
"To be honest, being around the tennis scene, you discover how it is much more intense than what we do out here," he explains.
"They work and practice so hard, it made me realise that I probably could work harder. It gave me a little more motivation to go into the gym and to hit more balls."
Yet modern science has had a major bearing on McIlroy's transformation from the gifted, skinny teenager who made his professional debut nearly five years ago into the muscular athlete we know today.
For the past 16 months, the Holywood star's posture and physique have changed under the direction of Dr Steve McGregor, the British physical scientist who helped turn Lee Westwood into one of the iron men of golf.
McGregor has helped McIlroy develop power in his legs, hips and core, providing a more solid platform for a swing which Jack Nicklaus has described as "the most natural motion in golf today".
His new-found strength allows him stay a lot more balanced. "I feel a lot more stable in my golf swing," McIlroy explains.
"A couple of years ago, I sometimes might have had a few too many moving parts. I feel I've cut those out and it's definitely helped my game. It has helped me to swing a lot more consistently."
That consistency was seen most recently at the Honda Classic, when McIlroy, completely unruffled by an old-fashioned Sunday afternoon charge by Tiger Woods, swept to victory and, albeit for just a fortnight, to the top of the world rankings.
When McIlroy first went to McGregor in the winter of 2010, he was typical of many top-class golfers -- though blessed with natural ability and clearly flexible, he had a tiny bit of paunch and padding.
McGregor first wired him up to sensors to measure muscle activation during his swing, which "gave us a good idea of what muscles were working during the swing, what ones weren't working and those we needed to fire more," he says.
The Northern Irishman didn't need extra length -- he'd been topping 300 yards for years. It's just that now he can do it without coming out of his shoes.
"I feel like I can hit it harder without losing balance. I just feel I don't have to go after it as much to get the length," McIlroy reveals. "I didn't have a strong enough core or lower back and glutes to stabilise my pelvis."
McGregor's first step was to balance the discrepancies between McIlroy's strong right side and relatively weak left side. Workouts included lots of single-arm and single-leg work. Much focus was put on the lower body -- the true source of power.
The data gathered by McGregor's work showed McIlroy that "the maximum velocity of my clubhead was happening 12 inches before the ball, and then it would start to slow down. I could generate the power but I needed the stability to hold onto it all the way through until impact."
"Steve has done a great job with Rory," says Michael Bannon, McIlroy's coach since early childhood.
"It's like putting better tyres on a car or souping-up your engine a bit more -- you've got the same car but it's more efficient and more powerful."
As he surged to last June's record-shattering US Open victory at Congressional, the physical change in McIlroy was evident.
The combination of his new fitness regime and healthy eating had helped him drop his body fat from 22pc to 16pc.
"I'm the same weight as I was when I started, around 164lbs, but I've gained quite a lot of muscle or lean mass.
"To be a top-class athlete, you have to train hard, you have to eat right, you have to get enough rest," he explains.
"I feel the way golf is going nowadays, you have to treat yourself as an athlete.
"Maybe golf isn't one of the more physically demanding sports but you've still got to do your bit and train like it is."
While Gary Player and Greg Norman were great ambassadors for the concept of fitness in golf, Tiger Woods sparked a revolution in the sport when he burst spectacularly onto the scene in the mid-'90s.
The fitness trailer and the gym became a more popular rendezvous for the professional than the clubhouse bar, yet very few grasped the true intensity of Tiger's fitness programme (his daily schedule is outlined in the panel above) or his determination to develop his physique.
Woods was wiry when he left Stanford University in 2006. At 6' 2'' and just 158lbs, he had tried but failed to gain weight through high school and college, so he was thrilled when all his gym work began to pay off in his early 20s.
"I was actually able to lay down muscle for the first time and I was able to keep it," he said.
"It was exciting. I'd never experienced it before. It was nice to feel stronger. All that work was starting to show up."
Now McIlroy has caught the bug. Lifting weights didn't feel right at first, he reveals.
"I used to not really like going to the gym when I was playing tournaments because I'd be sore and stiff, but the more you keep doing it, the less soreness you have and you actually start to enjoy it.
"People start to compliment you, saying 'Oh, you're looking good,' which obviously is good for your self-esteem," says McIlroy. Yet, as a golfer, he naturally has no desire to become the next Charles Atlas or Arnie Schwarzenegger.
"At the start, like early last year, I was doing a lot of basics, trying to build a foundation for bigger and more advanced stuff," he says.
"Now I'm able to move on, starting to do a little weight-lifting, snatches and cleans.
"In January and February this year, I did a lot of single leg work just to balance out both sides of my body, just squats, lunges, bench-press (his max for one rep, bench-press is about 200lbs).
"I've started to run a little bit more but I don't do too much," McIlroy adds.
"I like to run but you can have a long career in golf and you don't want to ruin your knees and joints too quickly."
With the muscle and the mental strength he has built-up over the past 12 months, McIlroy looks a perfect fit for the Green Jacket.