Sport Golf

Sunday 21 January 2018

McIlroy takes his own path to top

Rory McIlroy has coped admirably with the hype

Rory McIlroy during the third round of the USPGA
Rory McIlroy during the third round of the USPGA

Dermot Gilleece

On a memorable Saturday afternoon at Congressional, where he had opened up an eight-stroke lead after 54 holes of the 2011 US Open, Rory McIlroy famously exclaimed with his head in his hands: "Oh! Paddy, Paddy, Paddy."

And similar pleas for less daunting expectations seemed on the tip of his tongue at Valhalla while he tried to soften reactions to his remarkable current form.

Three years ago, in attempting to dampen Pádraig Harrington's prediction that he was destined "to break Jack's records", the then 22-year-old observed with amazing maturity: "It's nice to have all these complimentary things said about you, but until you actually do these things, they don't mean anything."

He will tee off later in the final round of the 96th PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club with a one shot lead and as clear favourite to add to his recent successes at Hoylake and Firestone. McIlroy is being hailed as the new power, a player capable of launching golf into another era. We even had Nicklaus claiming he could win 20 Major championships. The tone of his response has changed little in three years.

"People can say what they want to say; that's fine," he replied, "but I can't read too much into it. I just need to continue to practise hard and play well, and if I do that, then you know . . . Sometimes I think people are too quick to jump to conclusions and jump on the bandwagon."

So, resisting the invitation of various areas in which to jump, he has remained largely unmoved while effectively paraphrasing his own words from Congressional.

All of which points to a dominance achieved without any obvious change of attitude on his part, good or bad. He remains the same wilful and stubborn player who, at a particularly low ebb in his career, publicly declined to ask Dr Bob Rotella for help after missing the cut at Muirfield last year. Yet he has the humility to appreciate that the game will be the ultimate arbiter of his eventual success.

Such admirable common sense can be appreciated all the more in view of the latest setback for Tiger Woods, who was responsible for shaping McIlroy's early competitive instincts. A recurrence of his back problems while warming up for Friday's second round led ultimately to another 74 and a missed cut, five days after be had been forced to withdraw during the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone.

Alarm bells are clanging regarding the future of a player once thought to be invincible when at the peak of his powers. Apparently the problem is different from the area of significant back surgery last March.

"It was sore; no doubt it was sore," said Woods afterwards. "It went out on me on the range and I just had to play through it. [My body] was telling me on the range it probably wasn't a good idea to play, but I'm not exactly a non-stubborn person." He went on: "It's not where the surgery was. It's a different area. When I fell out of that bunker last week [at Firestone], it's the same feeling, the same pain and same spasms.

"I need to get stronger. Obviously by playing, you can't burn the candle at both ends. I need to get stronger physically and be back to where I was." Given that he has not qualified for the FedEx Cup and would be far too great a risk as a wild card in the Ryder Cup, a long rest would seem in prospect, possibly for the remainder of this year.

His brave if ill-conceived appearance at Valhalla - "I tried as hard as I could: that's about all I got" - reflects an obsession with the Majors unlike any other player in golfing history. By comparison, Nicklaus was almost casual about them insofar as he was unaware that his Masters victory in 1972 meant he had equalled the 13 Majors of Bobby Jones, if one included the Bear's two US Amateur triumphs. And there were no blowing of trumpets when he went on to record his 14th professional Major in the PGA of 1975, to reign supreme, whatever the calculations.

McIlroy was only seven when he watched Woods dominate the 1997 Masters. And he also remembers how his boyhood hero spreadeagled the field in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach and then the Open Championship at St Andrews a month later. And as a lasting impact from those experiences, he takes the view that no lead is big enough; his objective is to try and avoid mistakes and not give his rivals the chance of catching him.

His driving has been the focus of such rich praise in recent days that it may be no harm to add some perspective to this special skill. As in the report of a Major championship which read: "There can seldom have been a great tournament won so decisively from the tee."

It went on: "Nicklaus has a beautiful style and all the advantages of physique and power. He only once took wood from the fairway in his four rounds and the manner in which he dealt with the par fives was thrilling to behold. His accuracy may come from the uprightness of his swing which is made possible by the clearance of his right hip and he has no lateral sway whatsoever."

These observations were contained in a report of the Bear's record-breaking victory in the 1965 US Masters, written by the renowned Daily Telegraph scribe Leonard Crawley. And they simply serve to prove that in terms of performance, it can be dangerous to talk of unprecedented achievement in tournament golf.

Even in purely commercial terms, and even if he captures another Major title today, it would be fanciful to imagine McIlroy as the next superstar of golf. For a start, the last non-American to achieve that sort of status was Greg Norman who benefited on two critical fronts. His physical presence and hugely self-confident demeanour held tremendous appeal for American audiences. And his peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s happened to come at a time when America was without a superstar after the competitive demise of Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino: Woods and Phil Mickelson had yet to emerge.

And in all this talk about McIlroy filling Woods's shoes, it should be noted that in 1996, the year El Tigre turned professional, purses for 45 official PGA Tour events totalled $70.7m. In 2004, with the Tiger era showing no sign of waning, tournament professionals in the US were playing for $240m in 48 events. That was also the time when a four-year television contract valued at $900m and negotiated during Woods's amazing run from 1999 to 2002, had reached the halfway point.

Only a very special golfer could hope to transcend what Americans regard as a relatively minor sport to such a remarkable degree. And with the greatest respect, McIlroy could be considered a Holywood star missing a crucial L in his place of birth.

Fortunately for himself, he seems to have no problem in coping mentally with the considerable amount of nonsense which has been thrown his way since his victory at Hoylake.

Possibly his most revealing reaction has been: "I said at the start of the year that golf was looking for someone to put their hand up and sort of become one of the dominant players in the game. I felt like I had the ability to do that, and it's just nice to be able to win a few tournaments and get back to where I feel like I should be, which is near the top of the world rankings and competing in Majors and winning golf tournaments."

These are truly fascinating times in tournament golf, for sharply contrasting reasons. And the player currently at the head of things, seems to know exactly where he is going.

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