McIlroy proves he has Major X-Factor
GLORY, Rory, hallelujah! Regardless how he performed at yesterday's windswept climax to the US PGA Championship, the timing of Rory McIlroy's emergence as a true contender on golf's Major championship stage is of huge significance for his sport.
The sight of Tiger Woods among the also-rans at Whistling Straits yesterday, fighting in vain to clinch his Ryder Cup place, underlined just how far the World No 1's star has fallen, and with it the TV ratings.
Since dragging his sport out of the country club with his meteoric Major championship breakthrough at the 1997 US Masters, Tiger ensured golf would retain its mass appeal with his mesmeric feats over the next 12 years.
Yet even before the middle-aged Tiger's private life was sullied by scandal last November, the game already was crying out for a young player with enough raw talent and charisma to make kids want to pick up a golf club.
Gifted teenager Ryo Ishikawa has done precisely that with seven tour victories and an astonishing round of 58 in his native Japan.
Let's call it the X-factor and, in less than three years as a professional, it has propelled 21-year-old McIlroy to global prominence.
With more than €7m banked in prize money and as much again earned from lucrative sponsorship deals and endorsement contracts, McIlroy has long enjoyed the trappings of stardom.
Meanwhile, his reputation within the game has soared with his mesmeric progress up the world rankings. McIlroy first made the world's top-20 with his breakthrough win on the European Tour at the Dubai Desert Classic in February 2009.
He broke into the top-10 as he finished second to International Sports Management stablemate Lee Westwood in the Race to Dubai last November. The Holywood youngster then copper-fastened his place among the game's super-elite with last May's sensational first US PGA Tour victory in May, soaring from the cut mark to glory with rounds of 66 and 62 at the weekend.
Yet the elite professional golfer has always been measured by his performance at the Majors. Regardless of his performance as a westerly wind whistled across The Straits Course yesterday, McIlroy graduated to a new level at golf's Grand Slam championships with the maturity, assurance and -- yes -- patience he showed on Wisconsin's Lake Michigan shore.
Twice before, McIlroy had finished third at the Majors -- last year's US PGA at Hazeltine National and in the Open at St Andrews, where victory hopes set soaring by Thursday's record 63 were literally blown asunder by a wind-tossed 80 on the second day.
On that occasion, McIlroy allowed frustration get the better of him, a situation best summed up by veteran US golf writer Dan Jenkins when he Tweeted that "the kid's too young to know that 76 is a good score".
For sure, McIlroy fought back brilliantly over the weekend at St Andrews and, to his credit, still enjoys the distinction of never shooting a round in the 70s at the Old Course.
Yet until yesterday, he'd never given himself the chance to feel the buzz of anticipation, that rush of adrenalin, which only those within reach of victory feel when they wake up on the Sunday morning of a Major championship.
McIlroy was among those who helped Darren Clarke blow out the 42 candles on his birthday cake on Saturday and douse the roaring blaze of his temper at a party at The Horse and Plough restaurant on the nearby American Club Resort.
In the words of one observer, Clarke was "chewing razor blades" after three bogeys in the final nine holes of his third round had wrecked the elder Ulsterman's own prospects of a prominent finish at the US PGA.
Yet, typically, it wasn't long before Clarke was coaxed back into party mood and by the end of the evening he once again had returned to that fatherly old refrain, urging McIlroy to be patient in the final round "at least 14 times" over dinner, one close friend observed with a chuckle.
Not that it was necessary. Early in the week at Whistling Straits, McIlroy had laughed as he revealed how Clarke, for so long regarded as one of golf's most active volcanoes, leaned over and said, "be patient, you muppet," as they shook hands after playing the first 36 holes together at the recent '3' Irish Open.
Everyone within golf has long known McIlroy to be a quick learner but the cool perseverance he showed on Saturday, emerging from a rocky period in mid-round to capably match playing companion Dustin Johnson's third-round 67, had been hugely impressive. McIlroy's stock and trade is his ball-striking but it was the youngster's short game and, especially, his putting which shone brightest in the third round as he landed in cloying rough and deep trouble beside the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth greens.
It's a measure of the work McIlroy did with English putting guru Dr Paul Hurrion at Firestone last week that he had 12 one-putts during the third round.
More significantly, he dropped just one shot, at the teasing eighth hole, in a mid-round spell which in the recent past might have had steam issuing from McIlroy's ears.
As one would expect of a wealthy and sublimely talented young man in a hurry, McIlroy parks a high-performance car, his 197mph Audi R8 V10, alongside the custom-built Range Rover in the garage at the nine-bedroom home (including annexe) he shares with parents, Gerry and Rosie, on 14 acres outside the Co Down village of Moneyreagh.
Yet an interesting metaphor lies in his recent decision to opt for an Audi instead of the Lamborghini he'd been driving -- as it handles the bumps and thumps of driving on public roads a little better.
After slipping to three over through the first four holes of this championship, how good it was to see the comfort with which McIlroy handled the road back into contention, following up on Thursday's 71 with excellent rounds of 68 and 67 to lie three strokes behind the leader, American Nick Watney, going onto yesterday's final round.
Proud dad Gerry has been at Whistling Straits to see McIlroy open this latest chapter in his career, while mum Rosie was glued to the TV at home.
An ordinary, working-class couple, they went to extraordinary lengths to ensure their son would have every opportunity to realise his astonishing potential.
Gerry used to hold down three jobs, toiling 100 hours a week, while Rosie worked nights in a factory during Rory's childhood so they could provide him with the instruction, coaching and top-class international competition he'd need to get to the top.
World golf will share the fruits of their labour.
It seems like only yesterday when kids everywhere were saying, "I am Tiger Woods" in the wake of that 1997 win at Augusta National. Well, it was eye-opening at the 18th hole on Saturday to see a young father struggling to hold his little daughter as she wriggled in his arms until McIlroy loped into view.
"Look," the toddler said, pointing, "Rory, Rory."
She was pointing to the future.