Dashing McIlroy melts hearts amid superstar takeoff

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

SANDWICH, England -- The Irish avalanche has by no means subsided. In fact, this might merely represent the first snowflake.

So many reporters with expense accounts have descended upon Northern Ireland since Rory McIlroy won the 111st U.S. Open last month, the national debt has probably been balanced. They descended on his hometown, interviewed neighbors, neighborhood store owners, his old school teachers, chums and running mates.

The Rory Story has become a phenomenon.

"I didn't realize how much of a fuss it would create or how much of a buzz," he said Tuesday at Royal St. George's. "The support that I've had from people back home, from everyone from all over the world, has been pretty overwhelming. It's a very nice feeling to have that support walking onto the golf course."

Rory McIlroy has held the golf world in the palm of his hand since taking over the U.S. Open. (Getty Images)  
Rory McIlroy has held the golf world in the palm of his hand since taking over the U.S. Open. (Getty Images)  
Walking? He has been all but carried aloft by fans, the media and neighbors since his breakaway eight-shot victory three weeks ago at Congressional Country Club.

Not since Phil Mickelson won his first major title at the 2004 Masters has a victory been as universally well-received by so many in the global golf galaxy. The converts would include those occupying positions inside the ropes, too.

"I can't speak for what the fans think, or what the media has said or written," Paul Casey said Tuesday. "But in terms of player reaction, I have never seen a victory that made a bigger impression. Players were seriously watching it, going, 'wow,' wanting him to win."

Thus, the 22-year-old Ulsterman has officially won over everybody. Not since the Tiger Woods whirlwind blew away the sport in 1997 has a young player so comprehensively gripped the game. And like a bear hug, the game has gripped right back.

After years of waiting for a new prophet, a fresh face to supplant Woods and lead us through the wilds, McIlroy looks like he might be the real deal -- a young player who at last delivers on both the hype and his vast potential. Since his records-shattering victory at Congressional, a palpable sense of yearning has permeated the game.

It's not just that the game hopes McIlroy is the guy.

"We almost need him to be the guy, don't we?" said Kyle Stanley, a PGA Tour rookie who is a year older than McIlroy.

Exactly right. With Woods on the sideline and largely irrelevant at this point, and his career in increasingly turbulent waters, the game has been gazing anxiously toward the horizon. After players such as Sergio Garcia, Charles Howell and myriad others never mustered a sustained threat to the established stars, perhaps golf has at last found a successor.

In the District of Columbia, where inaugural galas happen every four years, the crowd at Congressional carried McIlroy along as though it was a procession, and given the way he destroyed the course, maybe it was. In the span of a week, after blowing a few chances on the Grand Slam stage over the previous year, McIlroy absolutely assumed the spotlight.

More like he hogged it. And boy, did folks like what they saw.

"Maybe it was the close calls, the British Open last year, the Masters this year, and then he just ran away with it," Ben Crane said. "He got a ton of coverage. There was no other story for four days -- it was the Rory story.

More on 2011 British Open

"We all got to see him hit nearly every shot. And he was on his game like nobody we have seen in a long, long time."

It was like an artistic unveiling.

"No disrespect to Luke Donald's game, but when you compare Luke's game to Rory's, Rory's is so much more exciting to watch," Casey said.

Donald, mind you, is astoundingly consistent, the reigning world No. 1 and has three wins in 2011, including Sunday at the Scottish Open. McIlroy, fourth in the rankings, not only has a textbook swing and Howitzer firepower off the tee, but a raft of intangibles.

"I think the thing about Rory is that he plays golf with a real flair and a real charisma, and I think fans are drawn to that," Phil Mickelson said Tuesday. "He plays with this youthful exuberance, and it's fun to watch and see somebody play golf like that and really enjoy it.

"It's not just how he won with his great play but also the way he interacts with people, the way he draws people to him."

Especially after the last guy. Woods still has his fans, but there's no doubt that he has become a repulsive figure to others, or that McIlroy is in a position to reverse the polarity. Moreover, watching the generally stoic Woods was like eyeballing an assassin climbing in a window to conduct his wet work.

"There's a genuineness with [McIlroy]," Casey said. "He always seems to be smiling."

There's another element to McIlroy's fast climb. Perhaps spoiled by decades of mostly having a clear-cut dominant figure -- be it Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus or Woods -- fans seem to prefer having a stable leading man.

"We've had, what, four or five different No. 1s in the last few months?" said Stanley, 23, the runner-up last week on the PGA Tour. "Maybe McIlroy will be the guy."

Of course, for all the positive trappings that being a centerpiece figure can bring, McIlroy is now, unquestionably, a marked man. If it bothers him, you would never know it.

"I've already noticed over the past three weeks that this has been a life-changing experience," he said. "Expectations are going to be high.

"It's nice to be the center of attention."

Then he smiled. And people ate it up.


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