Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Rory startled by life his gifted hands have given him

Rory McIlroy

Three years ago last weekend, Rory McIlroy went shopping with his dad at a mall in Palm Beach Garden. It was during the Honda Classic - the tournament McIlroy won last Sunday to go to the top of golf's world rankings.

As they stepped from a courtesy car, the McIlroys were caught off-guard by the sound of a welcoming voice. "Hi, I thought that was you. I'm Jack Nicklaus!"

"Em, hello Mr Nicklaus," blurted Rory. "Hi Jack," smiled his father, Gerry.

Nicklaus would recall saying to his wife, Barbara, that evening, "You won't believe who I ran into at the mall today."

McIlroy remembered only getting back in the car and scolding his embarrassing dad. "You don't call him Jack, he's Mr Nicklaus." The mortified teen is a man today, his name a burgeoning industry. At the top of his Twitter page, Rory McIlroy introduces himself as someone who hits "a little white ball around a field sometimes".

What he doesn't say is that, right now, he does it better than anyone else alive. McIlroy seems almost startled by the life his gifted hands have given him. He can look geeky, especially behind those black, thick-rimmed spectacles.

The gym may have changed his body, but the boyishness remains in that freckled, baby-face smile.

Maybe the biggest thrill golf took from South Florida on Sunday was the image of Tiger Woods firing a personal best final round 62 in a remarkable, albeit vain, bid to rein in McIlroy.

If that was a signal of the old Tiger's imminent return, it isn't unreasonable to think of golf's immediate future as a two-name story: McIlroy and Woods.

Trouble is, we still struggle to think of Rory McIlroy in that context. We see him date a beautiful professional tennis player, we hear of the millions pouring into his bank account, we see him tweet to friends like Rafa Nadal and Wayne Rooney and, somehow, he looks mis-cast in that world.

But McIlroy is a global figure now, the corporate world desperate to pin names on anything he wears. He has built a mansion, with golf holes cut into the back garden.

Those of us worried by his decision to part from manager Chubby Chandler have had our answer. This is a man who stopped being a kid a long, long time ago.

We didn't quite recognise that when he slid his drive at the 10th on Masters Sunday 100 yards left of the fairway.

The two hours that followed were excruciating. McIlroy's collapse was likened to Greg Norman's implosion against Nick Faldo in 1996. Norman was so touched by the public outpouring of sympathy after he blew a six-shot lead that he took out ads in English and Australian newspapers to express his gratitude.

Chandler waited almost two weeks after the Masters before travelling to McIlroy's home. Expecting to encounter an emotional ruin, he was startled by what he found. McIlroy told his manager he couldn't understand the fuss. "It's only a golf tournament" he said. "I had a bad day, but I'm only 21 and I'm going to learn."

Two months later, he utterly dominated the US Open at Congressional. The man whose crown he was taking sounded almost wistful, as if the course had simply been battered by some epic force of nature.

"It's demoralising," sighed Graeme McDowell. "He can do things to a golf ball that I can't - that almost no one else can. He can fly it 340 [yards] down the middle, then land a three iron as soft as a butterfly with blisters."

Golf has never looked cooler.

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