Natural gift opens world of opportunity
Legendary observers like Jack Nicklaus and Christy O'Connor Snr believe Rory McIlroy's US Open triumph is the start of something special, writes Dermot Gilleece
Upwards of 20,000 voices rose in joyous celebration around Congressional's 18th green last Sunday while the final pieces of an extraordinary double for Northern Ireland were easing into place.
And by way of signalling the combined achievement of two remarkable golfing families, Graeme McDowell, his eyes filling with tears, threw an arm around Gerry McIlroy while touching his steel-grey hair with the other hand in a gentle victory salute.
Never in a Major championship have I witnessed climactic moments like those of the 111th US Open. They became possible because of the unique character of a venue where the clubhouse and final hole were extended into a vast arena by the intervening lake and par-three 10th.
Then there were the McIlroys and McDowell. "On Father's Day to see Rory and Gerry, dad and son, the same as we saw Graeme and his dad (Kenny) last year at Pebble Beach: isn't that a family love story in a magnificent way," said Christy O'Connor Snr. "Dads and their sons. You don't see that very often. And they bringing two American Opens, one after the other, to this little island of ours. It makes me so proud."
When the deed was done and the 22-year-old Holywood star had set no fewer than eight records, we thought of the silly limits we place on true greatness. As it happened, a seemingly amazing recovery from a potentially ruinous stumble by McIlroy at the Masters was shown to be no more than an educational milestone in a burgeoning career at the highest level.
This much was evident from the player's post-championship comment on Sunday night. "I got my first Major out of the way . . ." said McIlroy, who found it difficult to understand why his many admirers were so worried about the effects of Augusta.
The fact is that for a player like Jean Van de Velde or Scott Hoch or Kenny Perry, Major collapses were disastrous because there would never be another chance of glory. But, for McIlroy, challenging for them was something he expected to do on a regular basis. So after Augusta, he simply determined it wouldn't happen the next time. He would make sure to get the first Major win "out of the way."
Sunday's triumph is going to have a far-reaching impact on the game on both sides of the Atlantic. While we delight in the prospect of having a reigning US Open champion in the Irish Open at Killarney for a second successive year, commissioner Tim Finchem is wondering how to get McIlroy back onto America's PGA Tour, especially with current television deals due to expire next year.
McIlroy's manager Chubby Chandler has made it clear that it's not going to happen so long as the Americans insist on a minimum of 15 tournaments for PGA membership.
"The number will have to be reduced if they want Rory," he said. "For my players, the real problem is the FedEx Cup tournaments." This year, they involve The Barclays (August 25-28), Deutsche Bank Championship (Sept 1-4), BMW Championship (Sept 15-18) and Tour Championship (Sept 22-25). While clearly a crucial part of the American season, they represent a huge slice of the autumn schedule for European-based players.
Tony Jacklin once claimed that it was only through playing the US Tour and beating Americans on their own patch that he gained the confidence to win two Major championships. An indication of changed attitudes, however, is that at the time of their victories, the last five Major winners were all non-US Tour members, happy to be plying their craft largely in Europe.
"The game over here is in trouble," America's leading golf writer Jaime Diaz told me last week. "The PGA Tour has problems as a business model right now and coming as he does from a blue-collar background makes Rory all the more attractive. Though he belongs to a club, he sort of breaks the country-club image over here. And there's a lot of resistance from those who still perceive golf as a rich man's game."
He went on: "The average American sports fan doesn't really care that much about golf until a genius-type player comes along. Jack Nicklaus had crossover appeal. So had Arnold Palmer. I don't think even Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros nor Nick Faldo ever quite attained that level. But Tiger Woods did. And I think Rory could, because of the kind of visceral feeling you get when you watch him.
"He's truly gifted; an artist with incredible grace which sort of transcends the sport itself. His youth, innocence, the sense of loving what he's doing, is also a major plus. I hope he can retain that. It's why people loved Seve. They sensed how much the game meant to him.
"Tiger used to have it but then he stopped projecting it and the public's earlier admiration turned to resentment. They wished he'd smile and be happy about what he was doing, rather than brooding and looking as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders."
Though Woods earned a formidable $62.3 million in combined endorsements last year, according to Sports Illustrated, he is losing ground rapidly to second-placed Phil Mickelson ($61.2 million). And with Mickelson now 41, it obviously won't be long before there's a clear gap in the market which McIlroy could fill. Before there's a chance of this happening, however, it seems that Finchem will have to bend on the 15-tournament requirement.
Meanwhile, the process of actually nailing down his first Major triumph brought three particularly interesting observations. "I knew he was going to win from the way he was striking it on the practice ground this morning," said Chandler. According to Himself: "When he got his distance control perfect over the first three holes, I felt it was all over." And as McIlroy stood on the 14th tee, Johnny Miller said on NBC: "He could win from here with three clubs." For my own part, it was when he hit his approach to 10 feet of the first pin on Sunday and then sank the putt for an opening birdie.
All the experts agreed that McIlroy's swing was a joy to behold. Which goes some way towards explaining his relationship with Jack Nicklaus.
The Bear has always been generous towards emerging talent, including Woods, but only if he admires how they play the game. And he abhors the modern emphasis on big-hitting. Though he himself displayed formidable power in his day, there was also considerable finesse in his game, which explains why he was unrivalled at negotiating a golf ball around 18 holes.
In a conversation I had with him a few years ago, he said: "The way things are going, there will be no place in the game for a man with the skill and commitment of Gary Player. Imagine not being able to accommodate the winner of nine Major championships. You could also rule out Hogan. All that skill being destroyed by power."
The Bear went on: "I played quite a few times with Hogan, including the last round of the 1960 US Open when Arnold (Palmer) won and in the 1966 Masters when I won. Sure, I outdrove him, but in those days length was only a part of the game. Now, it is the game. Guys nowadays can hit it miles, but they've got no game."
However, while McIlroy was heading for victory last Sunday, Nicklaus said: "I think he's got a great golf swing. His rhythm is so beautiful. It just stays the same all the time. He doesn't try to kill it; doesn't try to do anything unusual with the golf ball. He hits it a little harder at times when he wants to get it out there, and I think that's fine. He obviously has a great short game. And I love the way he walks, cocksure of himself. I kinda like that in a guy. You've got to have confidence in yourself and what you're doing."
O'Connor said: "I think his swing has become much firmer going through the shot. His left arm is much firmer. That to me is the proper way of keeping the club under control. And I loved the way he gripped down on the club for shots into the green. And the beautiful rhythm of his pitch shots. That's control. Arms and club working as a unit. That's a sign of greatness."
He went on: "I like to think that I had great tempo which stood the test of time, but Rory's swing is more upright than mine. He's like a machine hitting the ball. Great timing; great self-control; pure class. And the swing will get better when he puts on a bit of weight, which he will. And through experience he'll get to know his swing much better, which is one of the great joys of golf. Fiddling around too much, I hate. And I want to congratulate his caddie (JP Fitzgerald), who was fantastic during the last round, talking to Rory and even making him laugh at times. Which was great."
O'Connor, who incidentally is recovering from a recent fall, concluded: "He has very little to go wrong. In fact, he made the others look like pro-am players. The only thing that could go wrong is his head, but that looks to be well screwed on."
In a recent interview with Golf Digest, McIlroy said: "I like to swing with no fear. Over the ball I think about nothing other than the target. I don't focus on technique. But under pressure I do use one simple swing thought: I pick a spot a foot in front of the ball and hit over it -- hard. That takes my mind off the outcome of the shot."
Explaining the evolution of what is deemed the best swing currently in golf, McIlroy's coach Michael Bannon told me: "I made cut-down clubs for Rory at the various stages of his development. Gradually, I could see that he had an extraordinary feel for the game. If ever you could talk about a natural golfer, he was it. But I knew it was important that such talent should be given a good method. Which I like to think I did.
"Like with any learner, there were faults to be ironed out, like a rigid left leg and a strong left-hand grip. You know the way youngsters look for length off the tee by slinging out a long hook, because they haven't the strength to do it any other way. I was so confident about his talent that when he was heading for a win in the World Under-10 Championship in Miami, I told his father that he'd be a scratch player at 13.
"When he came up against older, bigger players, even tournament professionals, I didn't dare hold him back.
"I decided to give him his head and hope that he'd remain focused on improving his skills. And I have never had any worries about Rory in that regard, simply because of how diligently he applies himself to practice."
Back beside the 18th green last Sunday, I found myself talking for a second successive year to NBC's on-course reporter Roger Maltbie about an Irish champion of the US. What could Rory do for golf there, I asked him.
"Listen to them," he replied, pointing to the ecstatic galleries. "Hear them chanting 'Let's go Rory'. The fans love him because he's a great kid. He's going to be a big star and a big boon to golf everywhere in the world."
Now McDowell was there in a supportive role, no doubt thinking too about Pebble Beach 12 months ago. And like the rest of us, marvelling at these extraordinary times for Irish golf.
Sunday Indo Sport