It’s one year since Rory McIlroy impishly pulled Padraig Harrington’s leg as the dust settled on Sunday evening at the Abu Dhabi Championship.
The Holywood youngster gave Harrington a playful nudge in the back and a cheery ’hiya’ as he ambled past the Dubliner on the way to the recorder’s hut after a final-round 68.
"How’d you finish," enquired Harrington, pausing in the middle of his post-round interview with the media.
"Seven under, same as you," came the reply.
"Good man," said Harrington.
"Unfortunately," continued McIlroy.
Harrington rose to it beautifully. "Unfortunately?" he enquired.
"Yeah," retorted McIlroy. "I wanted to beat you."
Since then, Harrington went laughing all the way to two more Major titles. Yet if McIlroy has yet to register his first win in 16 months as a pro, his cheeky grin is just as broad these days, while behind it lies a golfer of far greater substance.
McIlroy has come a long way since last January, bouncing back from a mini-crisis of confidence in mid-summer to become the youngest-ever player to make the world’s elite top-50 before Christmas.
He and Harrington enjoyed nine holes together here on Monday as they prepared for their first Tour outing of 2009. McIlroy followed-up with another 18 with Aaron Baddeley yesterday, one of several Aussies lured back to the European Tour this year by the lucrative Race to Dubai.
It’s a measure of the young Ulsterman’s new status in golf that he’ll make his first foray across the Atlantic as a professional next month - an odyssey which will include his first taste of the WGC action, at The Accenture Match Play in Tucson and CA Championship at Doral, followed in April by his US Masters debut.
McIlroy has never smelt the Azaleas at Augusta National. Heck, his only two visits to Georgia were made in transit through Atlanta airport. Yet he’s watched every ball being struck on TV at The Masters since 1996 and can recite the card of the course like a nursery rhyme.
At age seven, McIlroy remembers being utterly entranced by Nick Faldo’s surgical precision and Greg Norman’s horrific implosion. The following year, his passion for the game was stoked even further as he followed every step of Tiger’s march to a sensational first Major victory at Augusta.
These days, McIlroy befriends Major champions like Harrington and Ernie Els, his stablemate at International Sports Management.
Els has agreed to play a practice round with him in Masters week, while it’s a measure of McIlroy’s potential that manager Chubby Chandler suggested recently that the 19-year-old might make an offer for the South African’s former home at the exclusive Lake Nona Resort in Orlando, Florida.
"I’m definitely thinking about getting a place over there," explains McIlroy, who has soared 140 places up the world ladder since last August, when the complexion of his first full season on Tour was transformed by a towering performance in the Omega European Masters.
Now, at No 40 in the current rankings, he enjoys, along with men like Els and Harrington, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson, the privilege of picking plum events in Europe and on the US PGA Tour.
"You see how life changes when you get into the top-50 in the world. You can play in the biggest events on the European Tour and the biggest events on the PGA Tour. You don’t have to go to the smaller tournaments in Europe and I’m not playing anything out in the Far East this year until the end of the season when I’ve got HSBC and Singapore. It just makes it all easier and a lot less stressful as well.
"There’ll also be a lot more world ranking points on offer at the events in which I’m playing, so the incentives to play better are even greater now."!