Monday 20 November 2017

Rory: The best is yet to come

Rory McIlroy tells Dermot Gilleece how he is learning to take the good with the bad.

When engaging with Rory McIlroy, you're immediately aware of earnest, young eyes that don't shift. So it comes as no surprise that there are no glib answers: every question is given full, courteous attention.

It's a virtue he shares with Pádraig Harrington, though he's a lot less argumentative. This, of course, may change in time, but for the moment, the player revered as the Holywood star is warm, amiable and remarkably at ease with his elevated status in the game, which may soon rise even higher, given weekend speculation of an impending $250 million 10-year sponsorship deal with Nike.

He is also a player of conviction. Growing recent support for Darren Clarke as Ryder Cup skipper at Gleneagles in 2014 has not deflected McIlroy from the contention that his fellow Northerner would be better suited to the 2016 captaincy in the US. "If it was up to me, I'd like to see Paul McGinley as captain in 2014," he says.

Our meeting was in the quiet of an empty locker-room at Antalya GC in south-west Turkey where, after being soundly smacked in his first matchplay encounter with Tiger Woods, he could focus without distraction on more important assignments down the road. In fact, it had been quite amusing to note his reaction when asked if the public should read anything into a six-stroke drubbing in medal-matchplay.

Where others might have scoffed haughtily at such an inference, McIlroy permitted himself a half-smile, waited a few seconds then quietly mouthed the word "No." There would be more revealing talk about Woods later.

A serious push towards emulating Luke Donald's achievement of last year by winning the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic begins in the BMW Masters in Shanghai this week. With season's earnings of $8,047,952 on the PGA Tour, he has a lead of $1.915 million over Woods in second place, and won't be caught with only two tournaments to be decided.

But things are different on this side of the pond. Though McIlroy leads the Race to Dubai with €2,813,962, Justin Rose is a realistically threatening €447,334 behind him in second place with five tournaments remaining. It looks as if the leader will be playing four of these -- Shanghai, Singapore Open (November 8-11), Hong Kong Open (Nov 15-18) and DP World Tour Championship in Dubai (Nov 22-25) with cumulative prize funds of €17.7m.

In the meantime, there was time to talk of life, love and the pursuit of golfing excellence. And about his status as a citizen of the world, which saw him go from days of satisfying reflection on an amazing Ryder Cup in Chicago, to a high-profile trip to Turkey where long stretches of road in the resort area of Antalya were punctuated every few hundred yards by illuminated signs of Woods and himself -- world number one golfers, past and present, as deadly rivals.

Simply being Rory McIlroy must be seriously demanding, I suggested. "Yes it is," he laughed. "At times it is." Then slipping into his earnest mode, he went on: "I was always attempting to get to this point and I suppose when you dream as a youngster of winning Majors and other big tournaments, you think only of the golf and how great it is. But it's the stuff that happens outside of that, the scrutiny and constant spotlight, that you've got to adjust to. And though you need thick skin at times, I'm trying to live my life the way I always have."

Didn't he miss hanging out with boyhood pals from home, lads like Harry Diamond who joined him in Augusta on the occasion of an ill-fated US Masters challenge in 2011? "Of course. But I guess it's worth making a few sacrifices, because this is what I've always wanted to do." Being the best? "Of course."

"When you're in the public domain . . ." his voice tailed off. Then he resumed: "My most precious commodity is my time. Sometimes I think to myself 'God if I could only get a couple of days to myself'. Because it is very busy."

In this year of extraordinary achievement, including a second, record-breaking Major triumph, was there a point where he feared being overwhelmed by developments in his young life? "Not particularly. After the start-off I had, my problems in the middle of the season sort of put the high points into perspective for me. I've tried to enjoy the highs that little bit more. Appreciate what I was doing. Appreciate that it's not always going to be like this. I think that's been the big difference with the way I handled the downs of last June and July. I'm just enjoying it more.

"Then there's my time away with Caroline (former world number one tennis player, Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki). That's my time off. My time away. And I need that. Of course she's famous in her own right which can create its own situations, but I wouldn't call them problems.

"A few days after the Ryder Cup I came back to Europe and Caroline came back from Beijing and I've just been hanging out with her. We got into Turkey last Monday (October 8) and we've just been relaxing. It's a great situation to be in. If I have time, I'll travel wherever in the world she is, just to see her. That's what I want to do. That's what makes me happy.

"Obviously it's very satisfying to win Majors and important golf tournaments, but deep down, what makes me really happy is my life outside of golf and how that is at the moment. And that, of itself, enables me to play great golf because everything is sort of in balance."

I suggested gently that most of us have known what it's like to be in love. He laughed almost apologetically, adding "I know, I know," by way of acknowledging that what he and Caroline have together, while obviously special to him, is not unique.

Visa problems, however, meant he was unable to be with her at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow last week, a rare glitch in what has become a truly international lifestyle. "Yeah, I suppose you could call me a citizen of the world," he went on. "No fixed abode, in a way. And I've adjusted to that. Though there used to be periods, of course, when I'd go home to Holywood for a few weeks, I've effectively been travelling the world since I was 16. So my current schedule hasn't been that big an adjustment. That's why I adapted so well to professional life because I had got used to getting on planes and bringing suitcases everywhere.

"That's just the way my life has been, but I don't plan for it to remain this way. I'd love in a few years' time to find a base and settle down. That would be ideal. I don't think someone can do this for a prolonged period like 10 years, say. I'd like to think that in a few years' time I can find a place."

Would marriage create that situation? "For sure. But I still feel I'd do it anyway."

Since the rivalry of the late 1970s and early '80s between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, golf has been waiting for the arrival of a comparably competitive duo, and organisers seem to believe that McIlroy and Woods are the answer. So it is that their first matchplay meeting in Turkey is to be followed by another 'showdown' in Shanghai next Monday, after the BMW Masters.

McIlroy accepts the situation with remarkable equanimity, possibly because of its value to his ever-increasing coffers. There is also an obvious admiration, however, for the player who had been his boyhood idol. Earlier on the day of our meeting, he had remarked: "I always have a great time when Tiger and I play together. In fact I never say 'good shot!' as much as when I play with him. He's going to win more tournaments and he's going to contend in Majors."

The choice of words there was quite revealing. Woods would continue to "contend" in Majors but, much as he admires him, there was no deferential suggestion about an increase in his haul of 14 titles. That would be to threaten what McIlroy clearly views as his own domain.

When I expressed surprise that Woods had gone straight to the golf course and played nine holes in practice on arriving in Turkey the previous Monday, McIlroy admitted: "Yes. I was a little surprised too. But that's him. He likes to be on the go all the time. I'd love to have some meaningful battles with him coming down the stretch at big tournaments including the Majors, of course. That's the stuff we really want to do. And it can happen next year."

Yet they were very different people, were they not? "Oh yeah," he replied. "For sure. I can't bring the intensity he brings to every week. He can sort of turn it on, which is impressive. It's something that I struggle to do sometimes. Though I can generally bring it to the big events where I really want to do well (five top-three finishes in Majors so far, including two wins), I would find it very difficult to do it every week. That's why I've cut down on my schedule this year (to an anticipated 26 tournaments) and will probably cut it to a maximum of 22 or 23 next year.

"People can point to my age, but too much competitive golf simply isn't good for you. That's where Tiger is very smart, bringing the same level of intensity to 20 tournaments a year. It's what he does. And I'd rather be 100 per cent ready 20 times a year, than say fully prepared for 20 and still playing an extra 10. It doesn't make sense when you don't have the right mindset.

"It's an emotional thing, of course. I had a great end to the summer with the PGA win and two FedEx Cup wins and the Ryder Cup but you reach such a high that you've got to allow yourself get all the way back down again. Then, having got down, which I'm trying to do at the moment, I've got to try and build myself back up for a last push towards Dubai. I really want to win it this time, after being runner-up in 2009 (to Lee Westwood) and again last year (to Donald)."

Though he didn't say so, one could detect the influence of Nicklaus, to whom he has got quite close since basing himself at The Bear's Club in West Palm Beach, Florida. At the peak of his powers in the 1960s and '70s, Nicklaus played an average of about 18 tournaments a year. Ben Hogan, of course, famously played only six in 1953 when he won five of them, including the Masters, US Open and British Open.

A closeness to his own father, Gerry, to Nicklaus and putting-coach Dave Stockton would suggest an innate respect for older heads. "Of course I have," he confirmed. "They've obviously seen a lot more of the world than I have. Dave Stockton has been a great influence on me and a great addition to my team, yet I can still be pretty stubborn; wanting to do things my way.

"Just getting to know Jack a little bit has also been hugely beneficial. These men have seen it all and it would be stupid of me not to tap into their wisdom in some way. There's a lot of great young players like Dustin Johnson at The Bear's Club and I know Jack's had chats with them. And I know he's also talked with Keegan (Bradley). It's great just to see him around and have a casual lunch with him and not even talk about golf. Just talk about normal stuff; what's going on in the world."

Finally, by way of maintaining a policy of not giving hostages to fortune, he once again declined to lay out his Major title targets, long or short-term. "This year, I was out of it for three of them," he said, in reference to finishes of tied 40, T95 and T60 in the Masters, US Open and British Open. "I'd like to think that I can be in contention for all four of them next year while maintaining my position as world number one. They're the goals I want to set myself."

In the meantime, there's the not inconsiderable objective of ending this year with a clean sweep of all the coveted awards. That's what being Rory McIlroy, the golfer, is all about. And the really thrilling thing is that you sense his journey has only just begun.

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