Oliver Brown: Rory McIlroy muscles his way to maturity at US PGA Championship
Rory McIlroy mounted the first tee at a sodden Valhalla on Sunday night with the familiar feeling of a target drawn on his back.
At a cumulative 45 under par for his last 11 rounds of golf, he exuded an aura as the nonpareil, perhaps, of the next generation, with a dazzling sequence of scores not seen since the halcyon years of Tiger Woods.
He was now the leader of his 16th different round in a major championship since 2010. Phil Mickelson, at 44, has not led that many in his entire career.
He found himself the figure to be shot at once more, and yet the mantle of pre-eminence sat more easily upon those bulked-up shoulders as he took ever more jaunty strides towards golfing immortality. For McIlroy has resolved decisively this year, after all the disappointments since he had last lifted the PGA’s Wanamaker Trophy at Kiawah Island in 2012, that this is what he was born to do.
If he is sufficiently fortunate to have been born with one outstanding gift, then it is his imperative to derive every last drop from it. For the past two giddying months – ever since he split from fiancée Caroline Wozniacki, if we were looking for a trigger point – he has pursued that philosophy with a rare fervour.
McIlroy is, for example, a man newly wedded to the gym-rat lifestyle. Arriving in Louisville, he claimed to have acquired an extra 6½lb in muscle mass over the previous eight weeks – a period which, not coincidentally, yielded his third major triumph and a World Golf Championship title. He looks entirely different to the raw prodigy of 2007, when he played the Walker Cup with Rickie Fowler upholstered by a few rolls of puppy fat, and he possesses the strut to match.
Jack Nicklaus, who has developed an almost paternal relationship with McIlroy in their shared neighbourhood of West Palm Beach, Florida, admits that the 25-year-old “has got a little swagger – it’s a bit cocky, but not offensive”.
It is an attitude more than justified by his phenomenal potency off the tee. Always uncommonly long, he has now become ensconced as the longest of them all, eclipsing even Bubba Watson with an average distance of 334.8 yards en route to his victory in Akron. No wonder Northern Irish compatriot Graeme McDowell has taken to referring to him as ‘BMW’, in honour of the ‘ultimate driving machine’.
Few, if any, have been capable of striping a ball 428 yards – as McIlroy did on the 13th at Royal Aberdeen this summer – without the slightest loss of poise or stance in the finish position. He somehow succeeds in ripping it further than John Daly with a far shorter backswing and the apparent effortlessness of Ernie Els.
The great American golf sage Dan Jenkins, covering his 223rd major at Valhalla, brackets McIlroy’s swing as one of the four finest actions he has ever seen, alongside those of Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and, more esoterically, Gene Littler.
One of the fascinating facets of McIlroy is that he sustains such a grooved motion without much rigorous coaching. His is a talent so innate that he can eschew the culture of the ‘super-coach’ – where Tiger Woods, under the tutelage of technophile Canadian Sean Foley, talks incessantly about his “traj” and “through-move,” – and still be the undisputed world No 1.
To this day, with the golfing planet at his feet, he sees no need to look beyond the services of Michael Bannon, his coach from childhood outside Belfast. All that the pair of them focused upon at the start of this season was an improvement in his short-iron distance control. If he succeeded, McIlroy predicted, he would enjoy a “killer year”. To judge by the way he has reduced a 505-yard par-four at Valhalla to a drive, nine iron and two-foot putt for birdie, we are witnessing a prophecy fulfilled.
Nicklaus has no doubt that McIlroy can surpass his 18 majors with 20 or more if he applies himself assiduously enough, and there is every indication that his protégé will strive to maintain his peerless form for as long as possible. For suggestions of a normal life are anathema to this once-in-a-generation golfer.
In Ohio, just 10 days after his coronation at Royal Liverpool, McIlroy offered an illuminating insight into his blinkered mindset.
“I didn’t want to grow up living a normal life,” he said. “I grew up wanting to win major championships. I feel that I can be dedicated and driven enough to become the best player that I can be.”
He is learning to take decisions with a single-mindedness extraordinary for his age. As soon as he was unhappy at his last management company, he jumped ship, shifting father Gerry, his mentor at every turn, to a far more central role in controlling his affairs. The moment that the swirl of conjecture over his allegiance at the Rio Olympics threatened to become overwhelming, he committed to Ireland. And the second that the first doubt entered his head over his impending marriage to Wozniacki, he abandoned it all, even when the wedding invitations had already been sent out.
Some might say, given that he was understood to have broken the news to her in a three-minute phone call, that it was brutal. Others might argue that it was brave. All that can be stated with certainty is that McIlroy is, in this unforgettable summer, investing the freedom fully in his game.