Rory McIlroy: Doing it his way
RORY McILROY is blessed with a honey-smooth swing which even Tiger Woods must envy. He's likely to earn more money at next week's British Open in Lytham than most human beings make in a lifetime.
And, after falling head-over-heels for tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, he and his Danish girlfriend must make it work under a media glare beyond the ordinary person's comprehension.
Yet in an era when the superstars of world sport are airbrushed as much as their Hollywood counterparts and become increasingly anodyne and remote, McIlroy somehow remains his own man.
Just 23, McIlroy has long been the master of his own destiny. Nobody tells him what to do, not the agent and long-time mentor Chubby Chandler he jilted last October, nor his current management team at Horizon, nor caddie JP Fitzgerald.
Naturally, their advice is welcome, but McIlroy makes the decisions. Like all great golfers, he trusts his instincts. However, he's bright enough to know when he's wrong and, engagingly, is never slow to acknowledge it.
Ask McIlroy a question and, invariably, you get a straight answer ... often painfully so.
Sometimes the blood boils, like at last year's British Open when, plainly frustrated after being blown off course by an ill wind over the weekend, McIlroy uttered the fated words: "There's no point in changing your game for one week a year."
It came in response to persistent questioning from a representative of one of Britain's broadsheet bastions.
The previous afternoon, the same writer had accused McIlroy of failing to prepare properly for Saturday's deluge. At the post mortem he haughtily suggested: "If you're going to contend in this Championship, you're going to have to deal with the weather."
It wasn't so much a question as a statement, dripping with enough condescension to raise the hackles of St Patrick himself.
"It's either that or just wait for a year when the weather is nice," McIlroy replied, pointing out Tiger won three Opens in fair weather. Plainly irked, he then caused apoplexy among the British golfing establishment by suggesting The Open was just "one week" in a long year.
'Sometimes maybe I should watch what I say and just put things in a nicer way'
McILROY meant no disrespect to the oldest and greatest of golf's majors.
And recently he's made nonsense of any suggestion he can't or won't adjust his ball-flight to play in the breezes, which should whistle in off the Irish Sea and across the bunker-strewn fairways of Royal Lytham next week.
Did the media fallout at Sandwich get to him? "Nah," says McIlroy. "Not at all. Just sometimes it makes me think maybe I should watch what I say a little bit. Maybe remarks like that can just be put in a nicer way."
For sure, McIlroy should occasionally box more cleverly, but perish the thought of him ever opting for the bright, shining lie of a life which ultimately devoured Tiger.
This gifted young Irishman is one of several free spirits who make the squeaky-clean, PC world of elite professional golf interesting.
'We're lucky to have met, only Caroline supports Liverpool -- sure nobody's perfect'
MORE has happened to McIlroy over the past 15 months than many of his tour colleagues experience in a lifetime, starting with his Sunday meltdown at the Masters, followed 70 days later by a US Open victory at Congressional.
The Holywood star controversially injured his wrist at the 2011 PGA, followed by a scintillating run of 12 top-fives in 13 events, including three victories, leading him to the top of the world rankings in March.
Those who offer McIlroy's recent form blip and Wozniacki's slide to world No 8 as evidence of an ill-starred sporting relationship forget how brilliantly he'd performed since their chance meeting at a world heavyweight title fight in Hamburg last summer.
This criticism has not escaped McIlroy. "Obviously I'm aware of what's in the media. It's just a matter of not letting it get to you. I've always said that if I'm happy and content off the course, that's when I play my best golf."
Wozniacki turned 22 on Wednesday and McIlroy wore his heart on his sleeve when he Tweeted: "Happy Birthday Caroline!!! The best girlfriend a guy could ever ask for!!!!"
McIlroy says having their relationship under such intense media scrutiny doesn't trouble them unduly. "Not particularly," he says. "I suppose it's hard to imagine it if you're not in that position yourself ... and there's not many people going to be in our position.
"You have to separate your professional life from your personal life and when you're at golf, you have to focus 100pc on that, which I do most times.
"We're lucky to have met, only Caroline supports Liverpool -- sure nobody's perfect."
'I'm going to miss the cut, so half my body was in Wentworth and half was in Paris'
WITH trademark honesty, McIlroy discusses one recent occasion when his mind wandered on the golf course.
"At Wentworth," he says. "I didn't have a great first round and then had a little stretch on Friday where I made a few bogeys. So, I realised on the 12th tee that I wasn't going to make the cut. So half my body is in Wentworth and half of my body's in Paris (where Wozniacki was preparing for the French Open)," adds McIlroy.
He promptly pulled his approach shot out of bounds, hurling his 6-iron down the fairway in frustration.
It's understandable for a competitor's mind to wander when he feels his race is run. McIlroy admits: "That's something I'll just learn to deal with. Of course, when you're playing well, you are completely focussed on what you're doing and the tournament."
There have been occasions when he gave up too easily, like at this year's Masters, where McIlroy's shoulders drooped after a calamitous front nine on Saturday.
Though he then took Rickie Fowler all the way to sudden-death at Quail Hollow, Wentworth was the first in a worrying sequence of three missed cuts for McIlroy.
Intensive work with coach, Michael Bannon, who -- significantly -- has decided to retire as head pro at Bangor to work with McIlroy on tour, yielded a share of seventh in Memphis. "I probably should have won there -- just played the last few holes not very well," McIlroy said. Clearly, he and Bannon had turned it round.
'I've said golf courses don't suit my eye, but you've got to make your eye suit the golf course'
McILROY failed to make the weekend on his US Open title defence last month and admits: "Olympic was tough. If you weren't 100pc on your game, it was difficult to get your ball around the golf course there."
Significantly, he dismisses suggestions that Olympic's pinched and tilted fairways didn't suit his game. "In the past I've said golf courses don't suit my eye, but you've got to make your eye suit the golf course."
This is just one example of how he's maturing in golf. Another was his effort at the Irish Open in Royal Portrush to embrace a pressure-pot situation which plainly had proven difficult in the past.
Readily accepting that his demeanour at the previous two Irish Opens in Killarney had been unsatisfactory, McIlroy explains how his decision to draw positive energy from the home crowd's expectations changed the entire experience for him.
"Instead of feeling it as a bit of a burden and being sort of miserable and sulky, I decided to embrace that role and, as a result, I enjoyed it a lot more," says McIlroy.
This was reflected in the confidence-boosting quality of his play at Portrush, where McIlroy would have finished higher than 10th had he not struggled with the slow pace of the greens.
'It's not talent that gets you to the top. It takes much more than that to win on Tour'
IN 2008, his first full season on the European Tour, McIlroy soon learned that raw talent, which he has in abundance, was not enough.
"Talent can only get you so far. You must have the work ethic, dedication, and the capacity to use your talent in the right way," he says. "The guys I admire on tour are those who get everything out of their game.
"Take Padraig Harrington. You've seen him play when he was 17 or 18. I've seen videos. You've got to admire guys like that, who just get every last drop out of their game. Padraig still does. He's turned it around and is playing great.
"Another good friend, Graeme McDowell, is so professional about everything he does. I like being around him and playing with him, because I'd like to take some of that from him," McIlroy adds.
"I feel that's something I've got better at.
"You see it across all sport. The talented ones usually are the lazy ones. They don't turn up to training or hit as many balls as the others. I learned quickly that it's going to take much more than being able to hit high draws and low cuts to win on tour."
McIlroy's build-up to The Open is entirely different this year. After playing the links on Thursday and Friday, he came home for last night's gala fundraiser at Holywood Golf Club, and will fly back to Lytham tomorrow.
"Instead of turning up on Monday night or Tuesday morning, I just want to get there and play, play, play," he says.
'I thought, Jeeeez, it's only one tournament, would everyone please calm down!'
STUNNED last July when he walked into the media tent at Sandwich, McIlroy confesses: "I'd never seen a press room as packed as that. There was so much hype after the US Open, I thought to myself, 'Jeeeez, it's only one tournament. Would everyone calm down!"
In Tiger's absence, McIlroy was in the eye of the storm. This year's event should be a tad more relaxed for him, especially as it's on a course he's loved since boyhood.
"As an amateur, when the Lytham Trophy was coming up, I always practiced my Lytham shot, a little fade," says McIlroy, who went within a whisker of winning that prestigious amateur championship on a couple of occasions.
"I've been hitting that right-to-left shot all this year. That's why I couldn't get it around Augusta, I couldn't hit the draw," he reveals.
Lytham's 200-plus bunkers, slight dog-legs and subtle greens make it a grand strategic challenge. McIlroy particularly likes the way those revetted bunkers are visible from the tee.
"It always gives you a target you can work off, which I love."
"This course has great memories for me because every year the Lytham Trophy fell on my birthday. I remember when I turned 17 there, Mum and Dad gave me the book for the driving test," he explains. "Stuff like that."
Bobby Jones and Seve Ballesteros dramatically won the first of their three Opens at Lytham, Jones brilliantly out of a bunker on 17 in 1926 and Seve famously from a car park at 16 in 1979, before illuminating the course just outside Blackpool once again in 1988.
McIlroy would not look out of place among the high-calibre champions crowned in 10 Opens at Lytham, should he go home tomorrow week with the greatest gift of them all, the Claret Jug.
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