Rory McIlroy already has separated himself from the heat-wave players of his own generation, and it’s not because of his hot sleeves and pink spikes. The brilliance and audience magnetism that others strive for with their candy-colored club shafts and fluorescent shirts, McIlroy comes by easily. The golf audience long has sensed something apart about McIlroy, some elevated potential, and with his victory in the British Open, he affirmed it. The next great is crowned. He is the Boy King.
When McIlroy hoisted the claret jug, he joined a short list of men who have won three major championships by the age of 25. Before Sunday, the list contained just four names in all of golf history, and when you say them aloud, it suddenly hits you just what kind of player he is: Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and now McIlroy. That’s the list. That’s the company he is now in.
There is danger in predicting historical accomplishments for any prodigy. When tennis dress designer Ted Tinling was asked whether the teenaged Jennifer Capriati could be an all-time great, he replied, “If she doesn’t fall in love with a ball boy.” McIlroy showed enough susceptibility to distraction in the past year — what with missing the cut at the 2013 British Open, upheavals in his business affairs and the tumult of his romance and broken engagement with tennis player Caroline Wozniaki — that it created some doubt as to what he really wanted out of the game.
But with his victory at Hoylake, McIlroy made a clear statement he wants to be more than a flash. There was an aggression to his game Saturday and Sunday, an insistence on rising above the rest of the field that wasn’t just an expression of talent but of determined ambition. Asked whether he had had a number he wanted to shoot, he answered with a whopping 20 under par, which would have been a record. Despite his stretches of dormancy, McIlroy has won a major in three of the past four years dating from his breakthrough victory in the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional. And if he hadn’t hit a house with his tee shot on the 10th hole Sunday at the 2011 Masters, which he led for three rounds, he might already have a career Grand Slam.
McIlroy is going to win a lot more tournaments. And when he does, we’ll say the 2014 British was where he fully embraced his talent and grew into the responsibility of having it. “Golf is looking for someone to put their hand up and try,” he said. “. . . I want to be that person. I want to be the guy that goes on and wins majors and wins majors regularly.”
How many can he win? We’ve seen other greats come on the scene in the last decades and do things of historical note, and McIlroy has more game than all of them. Seve Ballesteros, with his five majors, looks like a scattered hacker, Nick Faldo, with his six, like a mere machinist compared with the rhythmic ease of McIlroy’s swing. McIlroy is long — he slaughtered the par-5s of Royal Liverpool with drives of 360 yards down the middle — yet with as much tempo and precision as power. He’s a great scrambler, a smooth bunker player — how about that shot from deep in the pot on the 18th on Sunday? — and an imperturbable putter. In fact he may be endowed with more gifts than any player we’ve seen since the Tiger Woods of 2000. As Andy North put it, “His good is so
Maybe as important as any of those qualities, he wears celebrity and pressure lightly. He doesn’t complain about expectations or fame; he’s not defensive about his mistakes or his collapses.
“He’s not delusional like a lot of players,” Curtis Strange observed on ESPN.
After his 80 in the final round of the 2011 Masters, McIlroy was frank in his self-appraisal: “I totally unraveled,” he said. When he won his Open at Congressional just two months later, he didn’t shy from expectations but welcomed them. “Hopefully in the not-so-distant future, I’ll be able to call myself a multiple major champion,” he said.
Here we are in the not-so-distant future, and he’s got three.
Overall, there is a sense of mental balance in McIlroy that is equal to the square-backed solidity of his setup over the golf ball. No matter how hard he swings, he stays on his feet. The easiness in his arms, shoulders and hips seems to extend to his mind-set.
“Your failures are just the setups for successes,” he told ESPN on Saturday night, and that seems to be the Rosetta stone for his career so far.
What all that adds up to is a riveting player. For some reason, the audience senses a difference between him and even his most gifted peers, such as Martin Kaymer, who has two majors at the age of 29. When Kaymer built an all-but-insurmountable lead in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst last month, few bothered to watch him Sunday; NBC posted some of the lowest golf ratings in history. The British was a similar situation: McIlroy had a six-stroke lead when he went to bed Saturday night. Yet his final round felt like must-watch television, appointment viewing. Why? Maybe it was the suspicion we’re seeing one of the all-time greats build to his peak.
There is something compelling about watching this formative, emergent stage of McIlroy’s development, following him through his periods of unevenness, wandering attention, his grappling with stardom and seeing all of that resolve into a decision that his biggest obligation is to his golf.
“It’s a big moment,” he said. “I feel like I’ve come a long way in the last 15 months. A lot happened to me on and off the course. . . . I’ve really found my passion again for golf, not that it ever dwindled, but it’s my — it’s what I think about when I get up in the morning and when I go to bed.”
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