McIlroy the people's champion
Mickelson pinpoints ‘flair and charisma’ of Holywood superstar as reason why world is smitten with Rory
RORY McILROY went from the tranquillity of a deserted Royal Co Down on Monday evening straight into the bedlam of golf's greatest circus, the British Open Championship, yesterday.
So high has McIlroy's profile soared globally since last month's stunning US Open victory at Congressional that his pre-championship media conference was broadcast live from Royal St George's on America's top sports cable network ESPN.
There was a Tiger-style air of expectation as McIlroy plonked himself down behind the microphone, but there the comparisons stopped as the 22-year-old Ulsterman smiled affably and chatted as easily as he might with his mates on the first tee at Holywood Golf Club.
Phil Mickelson hit the nail squarely on the head when he was asked to explain the tidal wave of goodwill which lifted McIlroy after the Masters and then swelled enormously as he sailed to that record-breaking win at Congressional.
"The thing about Rory is that he plays golf with real flair and real charisma and I think fans are drawn to that," said Mickelson (41), an American golfing icon with four Major titles to his name.
"He plays it with youthful exuberance and it's fun to watch and see somebody play golf like that ... but it's not how he won at Congressional with his great play, but also the way he interacts with people. The way he draws people to him."
McIlroy's touchdown at Kent Airport, known locally as Manston, was quite bumpy as the private jet from Belfast was buffeted by the same stiff north-easterly gale which turned the links at Royal St George's into a snarling monster.
Things didn't go so smoothly on the ground either when McIlroy's courtesy car failed to show up because the dispatcher got his arrival time wrong.
Luckily his ISM stablemate Ernie Els had arrived at the same time and the South African underscored McIlroy's popularity among his fellow professionals by placing one of the two vehicles sent for him at the young Irishman's disposal.
McIlroy tees it up with Els and one of his best pals on the US Tour, Rickie Fowler (22) in the first round tomorrow morning at 9.09.
Quite a few seasoned veterans cocked an eyebrow in surprise at McIlroy's decision to delay his arrival in Sandwich until yesterday and play just one 18-hole practice round, this morning, in British Open week.
Yet this is all part of the same softly-softly approach to the Majors which proved so effective for the first 54 holes at the Masters and again in the US Open.
And after three weeks in which his life has effectively been turned on its head, McIlroy believes there could have been no better way to pass Monday evening before the British Open than by playing nine holes at Royal Co Down with his dad.
"We went out in the evening and there was just me and him on the golf course, basically no one else," he explained. "It was a really nice moment. We did the same thing last year going into St Andrews (where McIlroy opened with a record-equalling 63 at the Majors).
"It brought back a lot of memories, playing with my dad, long summer nights, teeing off at five and getting in at nine."
McIlroy admitted surprise at the enormity of the reaction to his win.
"I didn't realise how much of a fuss or a buzz it would create. The support I've had from people back home and all over the world has been pretty overwhelming," he said.
Yet he was able to restore a measure of sanity to his routine over the past 10 days: "I've been practising a lot and I was over here last week for a couple of days and got two good practice rounds in."
McIlroy endorsed his decision to withdraw from the French Open a fortnight ago and said he was glad he didn't enter last week's rain-doused Scottish Open, insisting his failure to play a tournament since the US Open would have no impact on his performance this week.
"I went into the Masters with three weeks off and shot three pretty good scores there, so it's not a problem to me not playing competitive golf after having a break."