Sport Golf

Saturday 24 February 2018

Masters education key to McIlroy's ascent to sporting superstardom

Rory McIlroy's mature reaction to his travails at Augusta shows how quickly he has learned to succeed, writes John O'Brien

Chubby Chandler once told a story about an 18-year-old prodigy he had signed to his stable of golf stars. The kid was a huge talent but there were rough edges that needed smoothing.

Not on the golf course, mind. Out there he was impeccable. What he required was a crash course on what to expect from life on the professional tour and the likely pitfalls he would meet along the way. A week's media training would provide a good starting point.

But the kid heard the words "media training" and flashed his manager a strange look, as if he had just been asked to play the final round of the Masters without a putter in his bag. He wasn't above heeding advice from those who knew better, but media training? Sounded too much like school. How old was he when he'd done his first interview? Eight, he thought. Maybe nine. "You know I'm pretty good at this talking thing," he said.

So Chandler relented. Rory McIlroy gave the media training classes a miss and, a few comfortable weeks into his professional career, Chandler wondered what on earth he had been thinking. McIlroy was a natural, not just with a driver or wedge in his hand, but with people and behind a microphone too. As if he'd spent a lifetime not just preparing for the birdies and sand saves, but for being in the spotlight too. It wasn't really like that, of course. McIlroy just made it seem that way.

We see the beautifully precise ball-striking, the product of a swing as natural and athletic as the game has seen, and accord it its rightful place in McIlroy's lightning emergence as one of the world's great sporting superstars. But on its own that would never be enough. And it has helped enormously that McIlroy quickly grasped that essential truth. He hasn't shied away from making tough but necessary decisions and has displayed an uncanny knack of making the right ones.

The biggest thing of all, of course, is knowing when to leave things be, resisting the urge to succumb to change for change's sake. After Augusta, where he blew a four-stroke lead on the final day, McIlroy would have noted the public clamour for change. Because many of his problems manifested themselves on the green, he was tagged as a poor putter. He badly needed to address a putting stroke that was seriously flawed and, possibly, career-threatening.

McIlroy's response to his Augusta nightmare was extraordinary. Where many would have simply consigned it to memory and locked the vault, he forced himself to sift through the wreckage and absorb from it what he could. "I made myself watch through that back nine at Augusta," he said on Wednesday. "I watched my body language. Watched everything that went on."

And when he had pored over the debris, watched himself dissolve into tears as the tournament slipped from his grasp, he wondered what exactly needed to be changed. If anything, he reasoned, his attitude was the issue. He had streaked clear of the field and suddenly become defensive, lost the "swagger and little bit of confidence" that is his default setting. He went to Congressional knowing that if he could somehow manoeuvre himself into the same position he could prove there was no lasting Augusta hangover.

The masterstroke was in seeking out the putting expert, Dave Stockton. They met first during the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow in May. Stockton was an inspired choice, not just because his clients numbered Phil Mickelson among others, but because he had been a great putter himself and knew the pain of losing a Masters he should have won when he ceded a two-shot lead to Gary Player in 1974. He could empathise with McIlroy and sense the right thing to do.

With McIlroy the right thing was to change as little as possible. What Stockton saw wasn't a man with a suspect putting stroke, but a young golfer looking for ways to complicate his life, seeing fears that didn't have to be there. Over four days McIlroy three-putted on only one occasion, less an illustration of how much he'd improved on the greens as a reminder there wasn't all that much wrong to begin with.

"A lot of it isn't to do with technique or anything," McIlroy said. "It's more to do with how to approach a putt, how to read a putt. Your mentality walking onto a green. I think that's something that definitely helped over the last couple of weeks."

During the week Chandler made reference to key elements in McIlroy's victory: his work with Stockton and the two days he had spent as a Unicef ambassador in Haiti the previous week. Quantifying the effect his trip to the earthquake-ravaged country is an imprecise exercise. Yet the confidence and audacity he showed to make such an inspired choice was striking. It hadn't been at his own instigation, of course, but you wonder how many golfers presented with the same opportunity a week before a Major would have followed suit. How many would have said thanks but no thanks?

Golf still came to him in Port-au-Prince. On his second day he was driven to a refugee camp in the hills to the east of the stricken city. The nine-hole Club de Petionville, the city's only golf course, had been commissioned by the army and was now home to 50,000 homeless people. The sheer numbers brought the scale of the disaster home to McIlroy's young mind. There was more to life than courtesy cars and FedEx Cup points.

"We drove past the presidential palace one day," he said. "The dome on top was just hanging off. I thought if they can't even repair that . . . The night we stayed there was a tropical depression and 25 people were killed in the floods. Just looking back I realised that Haiti was a great thing for me leading up the the tournament. I'd say if I'd gone there before the Masters the outcome could've been a lot different."

There's not much cheer for his rivals in any of this. McIlroy's growing fame seems to be as little of a burden as his huge talent. You sense a grim determination that nothing will change him or what he stands for. He'll continue to travel freely around his home city without retinue or minders. He'll happily field questions about his relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Holly Sweeney, who seems comfortable in the public eye. Occasionally someone will lob in a political grenade, but he'll diffuse it with a minimum of fuss.

He moves easily through a hard, cynical world. He knows the media would like to stoke some kind of rivalry between himself and Lee Westwood, but it doesn't really work. On Wednesday, he spoke respectfully of the world number two and how he deserved to win a Major. In the same vein he wished Andy Murray well at Wimbledon. But deep down does do they possess the necessary ruthlessness to make the final ascent to the top? Well, that's not really for McIlroy to say, perhaps.

He smiled, though, when the subject switched to Rafael Nadal. The tennis player had been one of the first to text him after his US Open triumph and is as good a reference point as anything he has in golf. McIlroy had been to watch Nadal practise and the focus and intensity the Spaniard brought to the session was eye-opening and instructive. Nadal, Rooney, Messi: these have become his touchstones as much as Woods or Nicklaus.

During a recent interview Nadal spoke about his sporting peers. "If I have an idol," he said. "I love Tiger Woods." Sport is fickle, though. After last week Nadal, and much of the sporting world, are now in thrall to the mesmerising and seemingly limitless potential of Rory McIlroy.

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