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The Open 2011: Rory McIlroy wins the hearts and minds of the golfing world

One punter from Sunderland has already placed £12,000 on Rory McIlroy to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award. He is short odds to come home first at the Open Championship at Royal St George’s next Sunday.


The bookmakers are reflecting not only the boy’s ability but our attachment to him. McIlroy is in our hearts as much as he is in our heads. That is sacred ground for any sportsman.

McIlroy manages to convey a welcome sense of normality as well as stardust. There is none of the overbearing preening associated with the uber-athlete from other sports. He is the anti-Cristiano. His hair has never seen gel.

His glasses are made from the bottom of jam jars. His one stab at grooming resulted in a disastrous confection of bad highlights in that unruly mop, for which he received a serious ribbing from his contemporaries on tour.

Victory at the US Open last month changed the golfing landscape. It was part two of the sports story of the year. The helpless kid whose talent was too big for him at the Masters in April came back like a champion at Congressional, training his formidable arsenal on the field for all four days instead of on himself.

He returned a superstar, paraded around Wimbledon and Hamburg for a world heavyweight title fight. His presence did not contribute much to the fortunes of Andy Murray or David Haye. Perhaps they can look to him for guidance in how to climb off the canvas.

n between social engagements, McIlroy squeezed in some sponsor obligations. One such was a day in London with his clothing partner Oakley, who flew in from Los Angeles a reporter from Yahoo Sports to help project the McIlroy message across the United States.

Young Mr Yahoo was afforded a full 10 minutes with McIlroy, which yielded a useful insight into the mind of McIlroy as he chases major No 2 at Royal St George’s.

“There is definitely that sense when you win a major, people are going to see you and come at you a little differently. And, honestly, there is also a difference in the way you approach it yourself. You do have that kind of superiority complex in a way and I don’t think that is a bad thing at all.

“It takes a while to figure it out and understand things and get perspective, but yes, a superiority complex can be a positive. You have to get yourself into this mentality where you think you are going to go out there and beat everybody else.”

This kind of thinking takes McIlroy back to his youth, when at times he would go a little early with the muscle flexing and try to shove his talent down the throats of his rivals. An example of that would be the day he inscribed on his ball in black ink the word ‘loser’.

As he went to place the ball on the first tee, he showed the ball to his opponent, and said, “I’m playing a loser today.”

Kids, eh? “The thing with me is that I was very cocky. When I was growing up I was winning all these junior tournaments. Then when I got older I realised that is not a nice way to be and not the way I wanted to come across.

“So I toned it down a lot and I went a bit too far the other way. I think I got to the point where I was almost being a bit too nice. You have to force yourself to be a bit arrogant in a way, and that is not something that comes totally naturally to me, but it is something that can be of benefit. I was a bit too conscious of how I was coming across.

“Inside I have that bit of swagger and belief in my game and I need that on the course. Now I have found a good balance.”

He has also happened across a method of peaking around major championships that works for him. Central to that is not playing competitive golf the week before a major. While that is not a radical position, his Ryder Cup captain,

Colin Montgomerie, thought it questionable not to play at all between majors.

“I would have liked to have seen him play a tournament between the two majors to get it out of the way so he can start afresh if you like,” Montgomerie said.

“I don’t have any fears for his game because he is such a natural player. My concern is for the mental side and the tiredness involved in coming from one major to another. He is going in there as favourite. Can he get the mental side out of the way? That has to be seen.”

Padraig Harrington erred on the sympathetic side. “He is obviously different. He didn’t do much before the US Open, either. He has a very good balance in terms of it not all being about the golf. He has it in a good place at the moment.

But when you win any tournament, when you get to the golf course the next week there are 155 guys who want to say ‘well done’ to you. It’s a big drain on your resources.

There are pros and cons to what he is doing. They are well meaning but it is distracting. It just gets the locker room situation out of the way.”

One problem that is out of the way is Tiger Woods. The comparisons with Woods are irresistible. McIlroy is presented as the alternative superstar in the game, a name to conjure magic. A week before he announced his withdrawal from the Open,

Woods was asked for the first time in public for his reaction to McIlroy’s US Open success. ‘Awesome’ was the thrust of it.

There is no doubt that in the absence of Woods, McIlroy becomes the standard-bearer. As Harrington said, it is one thing winning, it is another winning by eight shots. “I can go and win a major but I ain’t going to lap the field.

“I’m going to win it by taking someone down the stretch. I don’t feel I can take the field on, build an eight-shot lead and start waving at the crowd. He has that ability. And that’s the difference.”

After the disappointment of Murray at Wimbledon, and Haye in Hamburg, McIlroy offers an opportunity to raise a glass to a global Briton before the footballers return to the scene, a chance to witness something truly special.

Harrington puts it well when he says: “The old codgers about Carnoustie still talk about the day they saw Ben Hogan play. Now people have an opportunity to say the same things about Rory.

“He is not a guy who plays a lot. You might get the chance to see him play two or three times in Britain and once in Ireland each year. So this is a great opportunity to go out and see him. You hear of a lot of kids who are going to be stars but so few actually come through. Rory is one of the few.”

It is not only the crowd that are drawn in by the aura, it is his fellow professionals, too. “Woods got to a level among the players where he was the one player whose score you looked for,” Montgomerie said. “Without Woods playing, Rory is the player you will be looking for on a Thursday at St George’s.”

McIlroy spent Thursday and Friday of last week pacing the St George’s fairways, acquainting himself with the bumps and hollows of this quintessential links track. He will not hit a ball around the course again until the day before the event.

He is scheduled to arrive on Tuesday afternoon, but will not hit a ball that day. He might only play nine holes on Wednesday. It is all part of the art of staying fresh as well as sharp.

McIlroy’s history tells us that he has his preparation taped, despite the reservations of Montgomerie.

He has contended in each of the last four majors, winning one. The build-up to Congressional included a couple of rounds at the course and a trip to Haiti as an ambassador for Unicef.

The immersion in a non-golfing environment helped to clear the mind of clutter, and to remind him how fortunate he is to be playing golf for a living.

There is too little of that going on. McIlroy was both moved and disturbed by what he saw. It is trite to claim it put his nosedive at the Masters into perspective but it put clean air between professional concerns and issues of significance.

When his manager, Andrew Chandler, went to see him at his home in Belfast 10 days after his Masters demise, he found McIlroy fully reconstituted.

“What’s the problem? I lost a golf tournament,” McIlroy said. If he can meet the Kipling standard and treat triumph with the same equanimity, then he truly does have the key to life.

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