Blog Entry

Turns out, McIlroy's wired for prime time

Posted on: March 6, 2012 6:51 pm
Edited on: March 7, 2012 11:35 am
Rory McIlroy tees off during his practice round on Tuesday in Miami, Fla. (Getty)

By Steve Elling

DORAL, Fla. -- Lee Westwood ran across Luke Donald on the practice green on Tuesday, and given what they've recently had in common, the pair began a comical exchange about the state of affairs at the top of the game.

Westwood, never one to miss a chance at a good joke, turned to Donald, a fellow Englishman and said. "Good morning, No. 2."

Donald, unseated from the top spot in the world rankings on Sunday by Rory McIlroy, after Donald had had displaced Westwood from the same perch 40 weeks earlier, looked at Westwood and nodded.

"Yeah, it's sort of a bit of a relief," Donald told Westy. "There's only one way to go when you're No. 1. At least there's more than one way to go at No. 2."

At which point, Westwood's quick-quipping caddie, Billy Foster, interjected, "Yeah, No. 5."

Cool as McIlroy is playing it at the moment, it could be a long time before the 22-year-old gets displaced, regardless of the fact that Donald and Westwood can reclaim the top spot with a victory this week at the Cadillac Championship at Doral Golf Resort & Spa.

Don’t much like their chances, frankly.

Fresh off a two-day trip to the Big Apple to watch his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, play an exhibition at Madison Square Garden, McIlroy wheeled into Doral late Tuesday afternoon and proved fairly conclusively that he is equipped with all the tools to be the No. 1 -- including the precious gift of poise.

Even after a whirlwind 48-hour span since he became the second-youngest player to reach the top of the world ranking, McIlroy remains as collected as when Tiger Woods threw a career-best closing 62 at him Sunday at the Honda Classic.

He arrived at Doral utterly unruffled, nonplussed and rifling off all the proper missives needed. After years of enduring the rather grumpy sort who occupied the same throne for most of the past decade, in his first public appearance since climbing to No. 1, McIlroy was an impressive study in confidence, self-deprecation, charm and insightful analysis.

That's the public-relations Grand Slam, right there. We're all getting to know the Ulsterman, bit by bit, and the puzzle pieces are impressive. The Northern Irishman has always been open and honest, and he didn’t waste a minute reaffirming that, to the delight of anybody who will read the comments about his career arc, Woods, or the perceived mantel of being a marked man.

For instance, McIlroy didn’t at all mind admitting that having Woods throw everything he had at him at the Honda made it all the better. Well, sort of.

"To be honest, I was probably thinking to myself, 'Could it not have been anyone else?'" he said, drawing huge laughs.

He not only survived, but thrived. If it was the passing of the generational torch, Woods tried to burn down Rory's house first.

"I can sit here and lie and say that it didn't feel better to have Tiger post a score and to be able to play solid," McIlroy said of this two-stroke win. "It maybe made it feel a little sweeter than if it had of been someone else."

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Whoever wrote, "heavy lies the crown," missed the boat with this guy. McIlroy shrugged off the presumed pressure that being the top man on the totem pole carries and said it's all a matter of individual taste and style.

"It depends what type of mind you have and if you thrive in the spotlight, if you welcome it," he said. "I feel like I do thrive in the spotlight, and I like the attention. Not that I'm an attention-seeker, but you're doing something right when you're in the spotlight." 

A modern kid in a highly electronic world, McIlroy is clearly wired the right way. Monday night, Wozniacki waved him onto the court at MSG and he traded a few lobbed volleys with her equally famous exhibition opponent that night, former Wimbledon winner Maria Sharapova. A shrinking violet, he isn’t and McIlroy "won" the point, to the delight of the crowd.

Think about it: Everybody's different, but can you envision Woods ever putting himself in a similarly spontaneous situation before thousands of fans and a live TV audience, where he could have looked like a complete clown? Of the foursome that has occupied the No. 1 perch since Woods cavated the throne, McIlroy not only seems best-suited for the long haul, both because of his skillset and age, but the demands of celebrity,

"I'd love to keep myself here for a while," he said. "I know that it's inevitable that I'll lose [the ranking] at some point, that's for sure. I just hope that it's a little further away.

"I don't feel like I'm under any pressure to keep the No. 1, because that's not what I play golf for. It's about winning tournaments, and if I win tournaments, the ranking will take care of itself."

The shock and awe of the achievement are not likely to rattle him, given the company he keeps. He received congratulatory messages from the manager of Manchester United, Alex Ferguson, and the team's star player, Wayne Rooney. Greg Norman checked in, too, just like dozens of others.

They all have hailed the new boy king. Unlike the reign of another No. 1, who shall remain both obvious and nameless, we are not expecting an era of tyranny and oppression from McIlroy, who is anything but suspicious, paranoid or defensive. Indeed, his manner is as refreshing as the Atlantic breezes that buffet the Doral facility.

As his father, Gerry, said last year when McIlroy elected to rejoin the PGA Tour for 2012 against the counsel of his management, "He's his own man."

That's becoming evermore evident, which is remarkable given his age and fast-track climb to top billing. He isn't surrounded by an army of handlers. His swing coach is in Ireland. His caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, eschews the limelight. Nothing seems out of proportion. It's the way McIlroy wants it.

He received mountains of unsolicited feedback after blowing the 54-hole lead at the Masters last spring at age 21, and listened to precious little of it, really.

"I mean, you take it on board; the stuff that you might not think is relevant, you just sort of let it go," he said. "Even if you pick up one or two things that some people might say, you hold on to that and maybe try to put it in practice. 

"Most of the time, I try to figure things out on my own. I think that's the best way to do it."

Judging of his annihilation of the U.S. Open record book two months later, the evidence suggests he's right. The only player to reach world No. 1 quicker was Woods, who climbed the ladder at age 21. Though the comparisons seem premature, if not unfair, plenty of newshole has already been expended comparing the early trajectory of McIlroy to that of the 14-time major winner.

McIlroy handled that ticking time bomb like an adroit professional, too.

"I'm going to let other people make the comparisons," he said. "I've never said that I want to be the next anyone. I just want to be the first Rory McIlroy and however good that turns out to be, then I'll try my best to win tournaments and to win majors and to be best player in the world.

"But it's never like I set out to win 18 majors like Tiger has. I've always just wanted to win golf tournaments, ultimately to win majors, and to be No. 1 in the world. I've been lucky enough to win a major and get to the No. 1 position, but there's still a long road ahead and I feel like I can accomplish a lot more."

You'd have to be catatonic to bet against it. As none other than Jack Nicklaus pointed out, with a major already to his credit, McIlroy is a step ahead of most players. Moreover, McIlroy has already seriously contended at all four majors over his brief pro career.
"I've never let anyone tell me that I was too young to do this or too young to do that," he said. "I felt at some times last year, a lot of things happened to me so quickly in such a short space of time, and it didn't matter if I was 22 or 32.

"I feel like I've handled everything pretty well. I've definitely matured a lot and I've learned a lot in the last couple of years. So everything that's happened to me has been hugely positive and you know, it's nice to be sitting here at 22 and have the No. 1 ranking and to have won a major."

Introspective, easygoing and humble? Hold on, because this could be quite a ride.

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Since: May 5, 2010
Posted on: March 7, 2012 11:18 am

Turns out, McIlroy's wired for prime time

This number 1 talk is ludicrous... It's almost as if they rushed him to # 1 for the sake of golf ratings... no chance he'll stay at # 1 for long.

Since: Mar 21, 2008
Posted on: March 7, 2012 11:09 am

Turns out, McIlroy's wired for prime time

Look,  This batch of golfers is likable, but Rory is a pimple at this stage.   So he's Number one.  Likely he'll be back to Number 2 next week as remain 1.   He has won about 3 tourneys total, and the US Open.  To annont this guy as anything buyt a guy that has had a good 12 months is stretching the truth.  He has a great start to 2012.   We are more than likely to see him have ups and really downs thru the season.  When he shows us he can compete EVERY week, I'll call him the nwext Tiger or Jack.  The problem with golf is that although reall really good, these guys are week in and week out, Hacks.    The reason there is a love affair with Tiger is that he competed every singel week.  You never counted him out.  The number of cuts made the number of top tems, and frankly most tourneys, the talk going into the final round was about Tigers come back. 

Lets let Rory figure it all out, maybe he is the next great thing, but odds are, he is just like everyone else, he'll win a few time this year and that will be a good year.   Look at the actual ranking scores, Tiger spent most of his #1 time almost double the points that second place had.  These poitns are still half of what Tiger had during is 690 some odd weeks at #1. 

Lets let Rory "show us the money" before we start getting giddy.   In my mind he is on a Phil like career track, time will tell.

Since: Jan 19, 2009
Posted on: March 7, 2012 10:44 am

Turns out, McIlroy's wired for prime time

Also, having a girlfriend who is a professional athlete is probably the best thing that could happen for him.  She of all people realizes the time and dedication he must give to his sport and therefore doesn't pressure him away from that.  He has talked about this in interviews.  Im quite sure she isn't much of a booze hound either if she's playng professional tennis?

Certainly better than Tiger's slut in every city approach and hiding texts and phone calls and visits from your girlfiend/future/current wife, wouldn't you agree Teres?  Remember Tiger performed at a high level while doing all of those things until it all crumbled that Thanksgiving evening when he got caught.  Or do you just love Tiger so much that you are blind to being objective here. 

The very reasons you state McIlroy's dominance won't be long are pretty far fetched considering their isn't much evidence for it and even if there were your beloved Mr. Woods did far far worse for years without it affecting his game at the time.

Since: Jan 19, 2009
Posted on: March 7, 2012 10:29 am

Turns out, McIlroy's wired for prime time

I don't think Davis Love III is a great example here.  Rory comes from a more humble background number one.  Number two Davis Love was on tour for a DOZEN years before he won a major and NEVER really showed the drive that Rory has already shown.

As for the drinking/partying thing, lets not forget this kid just became legal drinking age and we all know what WE did at age 18-22.  I don't think he'd be performing at this level currently if he wasn't grounded and/or had any regular partying/alcohol issue.  If he is then he's even better than I thought.

Also the trend right now with most golf pros that are trying to perform at a high level is physical fitness, weight training, and laying off the booze.  Fellow Euro tour players like Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood have publically announced that they have given up drinking and become much more physically fit and although we don't see much of Clarke anymore Westwoods body transformation is noticable.  Don't think Rory is not paying attention to this, and as fit as Rory looks you can bet he's spending more hours in the gym than he is sucking down pints and smoking cigars at the local tavern.

As for flying to see his hot famous tennis star girlfriend?  Who wouldn't, and we ALL know about what a certain Mr. Woods did with the ladies over his outstanding career, didn't seem to affect his game much during that time so I don't see how we can hold a double standard there with Mr. McIlroy.

Since: Sep 19, 2011
Posted on: March 7, 2012 7:04 am

Turns out, McIlroy's wired for prime time

Good post, Teres.  I don't know much about DLIII, but I think I recall he loved to fish.  If he had a twenty-win career with the one major, but got to spend more time fishing and with his family, or just goofing around however he chose, instead of driving himself to squeeze out a few more W's, I think he made a great choice.

About Rory, anyone can speculate anything they want for the next ten years.  (Enjoy the present, I say.)  In his defense I would say that I think all of the top golfers fly around an incredible amount and run themselves ragged for sponsor appearances, or maybe to film a commercial, or go to an equipment manufacturer, or fly home for a day or two.  Rory going to NYC between tournaments doesn't strike me as excessive.  However, I remember Rory tweeting a year or so ago, that he was doing Jaeger shots one night, and I kind of thought, from a selfish fan's vantage point, that I would prefer if he didn't!  I don't necessarily agree with Jack's theory of alcohol and the yips, but I pretty much think alcohol hurts any endeavor, period.

Since: Jun 5, 2011
Posted on: March 7, 2012 1:01 am

Turns out, McIlroy's wired for prime time

The only way most of us know any of these guys is the media.  So what?  People's actions in public and how they come off in interviews can say a lot about them.  I think it's safe to say that none of us know Terrell Owens either, but we can pretty much extrapolate from his actions, public speech, and social media statements that he is a self-promoting blowhard.  Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion about golfers; that is why there is a comment field on most posts and articles here.  

Nobody wants to say this about Rory, but I will: I don't think he will have a long window of dominance, because he likes to party too much.  I'm not saying he's John Daly by any means, but partying and flying back and forth for "recreational" trysts breaks one down faster than living a more normal lifestyle.

I don't fault Rory for this.  One of my favorite examples is Davis Love III.  The "book" on him in his hometown area, in his prime, was that he could practice 8-10 hours a day and be a top five player in the world, or just practice for a couple of hours or so and be a top 25 player.  He chose to have a life outside of golf and still make a very good living.  Who can say he is wrong?  He chose to have a great life.  And he still played well enough to get a major and even be a Ryder Cup captain.  

It's always a balancing act: how much is a person willing to sacrifice to perform at an elite level?  If I was in Rory's shoes, I would probably do exactly as he is doing.  Walter Hagan, who did manage 45 Tour wins and eleven majors, said it best in this well-worn quote:

 "Don't hurry, don't worry, you're only here for a short visit, so be sure to smell the flowers along the way."

Since: Nov 24, 2007
Posted on: March 6, 2012 11:06 pm

Turns out, McIlroy's wired for prime time

Your only relationship with either of these guys is what you read and see in the media. I am going to go out on a limb and guess you aren't actual friends with either of them, correct? How can you make such an ignorant comment like that from the perspective of being just a fan of golf?

Since: Mar 3, 2012
Posted on: March 6, 2012 8:33 pm

Turns out, McIlroy's wired for prime time

The game of golf is going to be much better served with a number 1 that is not so full of himself.  Luke Donald is
a great player and deserved his ranking.  But this is a complete breath of FRESH AIR that the whole world of golf will enjoy.
Tiger could win 30 majors BUT, he will still have is better than now personality.  

Since: Sep 9, 2008
Posted on: March 6, 2012 7:52 pm

Turns out, McIlroy's wired for prime time

Rory has climbed a few more notches in my estimation. If he never wins another tournament and gets deposed from the #1 spot on Sunday evening he will still be 100 times the guy Woods ever was or ever will be.

Since: Sep 19, 2011
Posted on: March 6, 2012 7:41 pm

Turns out, McIlroy's wired for prime time

Fantastic piece, Mister Elling!

Sir Alex and Rooooooo-neeeeeeeey!  Not bad.

How refreshing is it to hear this:

"I've never said that I want to be the next anyone. I just want to be the first Rory McIlroy and however good that turns out to be, then I'll try my best to win tournaments and to win majors and to be best player in the world.

"But it's never like I set out to win 18 majors like Tiger has. I've always just wanted to win golf tournaments, ultimately to win majors, and to be No. 1 in the world."

What a healthy attitude.  To steal another commenter's phrase, we are entering an Irish Spring.  I love this kid.  (If Keegan can call him "kid," so can I.  After all, I'm twice Keegan's age.)

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