Rory McIlroy proves he’s a U.S. Open champion all his own

Sally Jenkins
Columnist June 19, 2011

Even before Rory McIlroy formally won the U.S. Open at Congressional, doffing his cap and raking his fingers through that rampant black hair as he accepted the roars as his due, the comparisons had started: How does he measure up to Tiger Woods? Where do his numbers stack up, historically? What champion of the past does he most resemble? But the more relevant point is that he doesn’t particularly remind you of anybody. He’s not a copy, there’s no hint of imitation in his game or his demeanor. He’s a newly minted brand, a McIlroy.

“To get one out of the way early, you can always call yourself a major champion,” McIlroy said. “And hopefully in the not-so-distant future I’ll be able to call myself a multiple major champion.”

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

The thing about a great is that there is only one of him. One Ben Hogan, one Jack Nicklaus. They change the swing, change the flight of the ball, change the concept of how to play to win, and stamp their own personality on the game. McIlroy is only 22 years old, but he promises to do the same. Over four days in Bethesda as he set a fistful of Open records en route to a 16-under-par 268, McIlroy combined an aura of superiority with an embraceable man-of-the-people air — and that’s a unique and welcome combination. Have we ever seen a player with his combination of youth, craft and approachability? I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a new champion who doesn’t treat the world as his spittoon.

McIlroy sketched out a discernible if young identity in his habitual baby blue shirt and white cotton pants: one of easy, ambling brilliance. Throughout the muffled, humid four days at Congressional, he played with a stalking rhythm, hitting a succession of high, soft irons that sent wedges of turf flying in the air.

“When you’re swinging well and you’re that comfortable, everything just seems quite rhythmical, anyway,” he said, “even the way you walk and just your whole thought process, everything just seems to go quite well.”

There was something palpably low-tension about him; you had to look closely to see the power in the meaty forearms and shoulders beneath his shirt. He wielded his driver so powerfully and accurately that it was obvious why friends on the European Tour nicknamed him BMW, because he is “the ultimate driving machine.”

He distanced himself so completely from the field, he seemed to be in a different tournament. He hit 62 of 72 greens in regulation, the most in a U.S. Open since the statistic has been tracked. His countryman Graeme McDowell left a note on his locker that said, “What golf course are you playing?”

McIlroy had one guy to beat: himself. His ball striking was so pure it made other players — even great ones such as Phil Mickelson — seem like coarse hackers. His play was so recognizably great, yet also indelibly his own, that other former greats couldn’t help marveling over it.

“He never hits a bad shot,” NBC’s Johnny Miller said. “Playing against him, a guy that hits it that perfect and that far every time, it’s almost demoralizing. You look at how he strikes the ball, and you wonder if it made Mickelson want to throw his clubs in the water.” Or better yet, Miller, added, “maybe caddie for him.”

Another part of his golf personality that became clear was how deliberately he plays. He was fast but never hurried. He didn’t agonize over club choice or waggle. He didn’t overthink, or overwork. “He showed that he knew how to play the last two days with a big lead,” Nicklaus said. “Not only did Rory know how to play with a big lead, he played it confidently, played it smartly, and he never put himself in position to be in trouble.”

His sureness was a result of his trust in that sweet swing, which experts agree is the best they’ve seen in generations. It’s the same swing he learned as an 8-year-old and finished tinkering with by the time he was 14. Early on, McIlroy arrived at a fundamental truth: If you want to do something uncommonly well, don’t copy others. “No imitation is going to be as good as an original,” as the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee put it.

According to McIlroy’s lifelong golf teacher, Michael Bannon of the Bangor Golf Club in Northern Ireland, McIlroy was tempted just once to model himself after another player. He was 13 when Bannon caught him trying to imitate a Tiger Woods follow through. Bannon told him to quit it. “Why don’t you just swing like Rory McIlroy,” he said.

His personality seemed as easy as his swing, which accounted for the depth of affection he received from the American audience. From the first hole on Sunday when he sank a six-foot birdie putt to make it apparent he intended to seize the trophy, the galleries chanted for him, “Ror-ee, Ror-ee.” By the par-3 10th hole, where he blazed his six-iron right over the flagstick and backed the ball up to three inches, almost holing out, the galleries were uttering a steady deep-throated noise, “Roar-eee!! Roar-eee!”

Off the course, he was generous with his galleries, conversational and steadfastly real. “He’s very courteous, well-mannered and gives people time,” Bannon said.

His agent Chubby Chandler said, “He remembers to thank his Mom.”

Will that change, as he becomes a calibrated public brand, and perhaps even commodified within an inch of his life? His friends doubted it. He still lives in the village of Holywood, his home town just east of Belfast, where he dates a university student he has known since his school days. He owns a six-room house, where he stocked the garage with a Ferrari. He was looking forward to returning to the village to celebrate with his family and mates, who on Sunday night kept the Holywood Golf Club bar, which used to be managed by his father Gerry, open and serving late. “With everything going on my account as well, probably,” he said.

He has the usual preoccupations for a guy his age who has become staggeringly wealthy. After he shot a 65 in the first round of the Masters in April, he was asked what he talked about on the course with his playing partners Rickie Fowler and Jason Day. “Cars and boats,” he admitted.

None of this is to say he is ordinary. Just that, as Padraig Harrington observed, McIlroy may be well equipped to deal with the extraordinary success that seems to be his future.

“He’s 22 years old and this is indeed his destiny,” Harrington said. “So I think he’s well prepared for it. You know what, I think he’s got very good balance in his life. So I don’t think this is going to be too earth shattering for him.”

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