Sport Golf

Wednesday 17 July 2019

Next Major all that matters for focused Rory McIlroy

'Career Slam' can wait as Rory looks no further than a second PGA title

Open Champion Rory McIlroy is desperate to add to his haul of three Majors
Open Champion Rory McIlroy is desperate to add to his haul of three Majors

James Corrigan

Rory McIlroy found it difficult to let himself go during the celebrations on Sunday evening. Why? Because of that humbling fulfilment of fantasy probably; or of that wish to take it all in; or of alcohol being an unnecessary means to euphoria with all that destiny scrambling his senses?

"Erm, no," McIlroy replies. "It was the first time I'd ever been in a nightclub with my parents and it was a bit surreal and weird."

Yes, it was the forever-grounded McIlroy who arrived at Gleneagles on Thursday, four days after he won the Open Championship. With the Ryder Cup due to take place at the plush golfing resort in nine weeks' time, the conversation would usually have centred around the biennial dust-up.

Yet not with McIlroy, not with the Claret Jug in his arms, not with the title of the third youngest player to win three of the four majors.

The party would inevitably run and run. Well, for at least 48 hours.

"Sunday in that Liverpool club was great with family and friends, but I tried to keep it sensible," he says. "Monday was the night for letting my hair down, back with all my old mates, from school and everything in Belfast.

"We had this big table, with chairs on either side and the Claret Jug in the middle. We kept filling it with champagne and it went round and round and round. It was great fun, the release I needed.

"Yet it wasn't mad. It wasn't quite Clarkey (Darren Clarke). I did two nights, Clarkey did two months... two years even! I've tried to keep it as low key as possible these last few days, tried to just go about my business as usual."

With some of the legends contacting him with their congratulations it would have been easy, if not forgivable, for the ego never to have landed.

"They were some special messages and one of the most special was the first I received – from Jack and Barbara Nicklaus," McIlroy says. "They told me they couldn't wait to see me when I get back to Palm Beach. I've become close with them over the past few months."

And the other messages? "There's been thousands that I promise to get around to reading," he says. "But it's the middle of the season and there's still a lot more I want to achieve by the end of it. Yeah, it's the Open and it's the biggest, but I'll let myself sit back and savour it when the golf year is over. And I know a lot of the champions take the jug with them everywhere, but I can't see myself doing that. I'll just feast my eyes on it at Christmas."

McIlroy did not even take it when he went to see the Northern Ireland Executive in Stormont on Tuesday and when asked by the first minister, Peter Robinson, and deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, as to its whereabouts, McIroy said it was being cleaned.

"It was back in the house and probably was in a bit of a state on Tuesday morning," he says. "But from Stormont I was going straight on to somewhere else and I just didn't want to carry it around. It's nice to be able to share it with my friends, but, honestly, to take it everywhere you go in public? Well, I'd think I'd be showing off.

"OK, it would have been nice for them to see it, but already to me it would feel like 'ooh, look what I've won' and that would make me feel awkward. Everybody knows I won it, they don't need to see it again and again.

"It's funny, I'd be recognised but I had no problem walking round Belfast in the weeks before the Open," he says. "But I've notice a huge change even in the few days since Hoylake. Getting stopped all the time, cars beeping, people pointing their phones in your face and clicking and generally not being able to do anything."

One of these opportunistic snaps showed McIlroy in the car with a Belfast model and thus the latest "love interest" reports were born.

McIlroy would not know; he has given up on the newspapers in the wake of the global headlines following his split with Caroline Wozniacki. And he has thrown away his old mobile phone, meaning "only a maximum of 30 people have my number."

"Don't get me wrong, I know I'm very lucky and blessed and I know all this comes with it. But I've always wanted to lead a normal life, yet to do the things I'd like to do is becoming increasingly difficult."

If all that makes him sound like "the reluctant champion," then there is nothing at all reluctant about his desire to be a champion. How many other golfers would have halted the festivities and all that hero worship to book himself in for a day-long fitness testing in the GSK Human Performance Lab?

"It would have been really easy to cancel that, being wired up and running myself into the ground," he says. "And yeah, after those last few days I could have done without it. But I wanted to get back to the reality of professional life and it was really beneficial.

"We got some good results and direction of what I want to achieve with my body for the rest of the year. If I hadn't gone then it could have meant a drop-off for the next four or five months, and as we are talking fine margins that could be vital."

McIlroy will fly back to his Palm Beach Gardens residence today for some weekend practice before he heads to Akron, Ohio, for his reappearence. Next week's WGC Bridgestone Invitation will be far more than a mere warm-up to the following week's USPGA, as McIlroy could reclaim the world No 1 tag.

"That should refocus the mind nicely," he says.

McIlroy might see Tiger Woods, who lives close by, and it will be intriguing to hear if he brings up Woods' post-British Open assertion that McIlroy is a brilliant, but essentially streaky player – "like Phil (Mickelson)". Although, as McIlroy has said the same in the past, he could hardly object. Yet maybe, the comparison needs updating.


"The characteristics of my game are more like those of Phil than Tiger, but the Major wins now suggest something different in terms of my career path," McIlroy declares. "I've won three Majors by 25 and Phil won his first at 34, although he has obviously had an incredible time in the Majors since.

"This year has been consistent – the only time I didn't finish in the top 25 is the missed cut at the Irish Open.

"I've kept saying that the good scores are there and that it's much easier to eradicate the bad stuff than discover the good stuff. I've done that at Wentworth and Hoylake – which are not the worst two stages to get it right."

Indeed, they are not, and it is this ability to be at his coollest when the glare is at its hottest that has led to many grand predictions this week. The career Grand Slam, eight majors, 10 majors, 15 majors, 19 majors... the guesses keep coming. And McIlroy rolls his eyes.

"I've never made predictions and didn't when I was a kid, no matter how much of a dreamer I was," he reveals. "I just wanted to win a major, didn't think more than that, about records, or of being world No 1. Being a major-winner was the only thing.

"And all I've ever said since 2011 is that if I get to two, I'll try to get to three, if I get to three, I'll try to get to four and so on. What has changed is that now I'll say 'when' I get to four. Because I believe I will. And I want to get there as quickly as possible and that's why my mind's zeroing in on the USPGA. It would be nice to go for the career Grand Slam at the Masters going for fifth Major instead of the fourth."

McIlroy finds it impossible not to bring up the 2015 Masters. For someone who is not altogether comfortable in the spotlight, he is already welcoming the thought of the intensive hype in the months preceding next April.

"Augusta next year will be hyped up and so it should be," he says. "What, only five players have done the career Grand Slam in history? That's a immense thing to aim for and I still can't believe I'll be going in at 25 with a chance.

"For me it'll always be all about the majors; in the Tiger era, their importance has become massive. They're the storyline, they're the narrative, 'How many majors have you won?' not 'How many tournaments have you won?'

"It's what defines you and the great thing about golf is that there are always historic marks to chase. After the career Grand Slam it'll be (Nick) Faldo's modern European mark of six and, if I get there, on it will go."

So how far can he go? "I'm 25, and realistically I have 15 more years at the top of my game," McIlroy said. "That's 60 chances or so. And since the 2011 US Open, I've won three in 13 Majors.

"As everybody knows I've had some ups and downs in that time, but I would have taken that return. Jeez, would I? That's nearly one a year – and I can add up, you know! But there's no point whatsoever in that, I can only think of the now and I've turned a corner in everything.

"I'm on a good path; the game's good, mentally I'm good and I've never been so fit and healthy. So, I'll enjoy it, but will keep going, foot down... there'll be plenty of time to party." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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