Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Rory McIlroy at the top of his game

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland looks at Martin Kaymer's club head cover during a practice round of the 94th PGA Championship at the Ocean Course on August 8, 2012 in Kiawah Island, South Carolina
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland kisses the championships trophy for photographers after the final round of the PGA Championship golf tournament on the Ocean Course of the Kiawah Island Golf Resort in Kiawah Island, S.C., Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Rory McIlroy

Hyperbole, said Robert on my Twitter feed. He is no Tiger Woods, and never will be. Approval of Rory McIlroy is clearly not universal. Let the facts speak for themselves. McIlroy secured his second major, the PGA Championship, at a younger age than Tiger Woods and by a record margin. His first major, the US Open, was also won with unprecedented numbers.

The point missed by Robert and those obsessed with hierarchy is this: McIlroy is not trying to be Woods. He is content to be himself, happy to explore the limits of what is possible for him. And thank heavens for that. The rapture that acclaimed him when that 25-footer snaked across the last green and into the hole for a birdie was just the kind of undiluted joy that winning big is supposed to trigger.

After the two weeks we have just experienced in London, the return of the joyless winner with his game face on would have been intolerable. McIlroy reminded us that there is a sporting life beyond the Olympics that is worth our investment. You won't hear him claiming for himself the legendary status others would bestow on him. The recent run of missed cuts were reminder enough of the fickle hold on form any athlete possesses.

How is it possible to oversell the unprecedented achievements of a 23-year-old golfer? Let's just celebrate him. That does not require an anointment. There is no need to classify him yet, to weigh his gains and his losses. Let him be what he is and who he is. It may be that both those elements change in nature and dimension as the years wash over him.

It was Jack Nicklaus who advised McIlroy that defeat can be as instructive as victory. No golfer has ever had it his own way. McIlroy learnt the value of that in early summer, a period he could not have imagined when scaling the heights of Congressional last year. There are moments, episodes, days that glow hot in retrospect. Friday of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth is an example.

McIlroy had missed a second consecutive cut. He was not mucking about. These were not any old blobs. His first "failure" came at the Players Championship at Sawgrass, a tournament that pays out the biggest winner's cheque in golf. McIlroy was coming off the best run of his career, 13 top-fives in 15 events, culminating in a play-off defeat at Quail Hollow the week before. A one-off at Sawgrass he could tolerate. A second at the European Tour's flagship event disturbed his equilibrium and was something of an embarrassment to him.

This was supposed to be a celebration of his genius, the prelude to the defence of his US Open. His six-iron at the 10th on the last day at Congressional was judged by the European Tour to be the shot of 2012. A presentation to honour it had been schemed for this very day. This required a round of pictures with the trophy. McIlroy obliged but was disconsolate. A rictus smile was the best he could do.

No game attacks a ring of confidence with the virulence of golf. From absolute command to shank is within the gift of the very best. McIlroy was not unique in having his trousers taken down by the game. Only the height from which he fell was unusual. McIlroy walked from the scorer's hut into a wall of microphones. The inquisition was layered with a string of implied questions that nestled silently alongside the standard fodder. What is going on Rory? Missed cut? We have packaged you as a demigod. How can you let us down like this? He could sense the tone and didn't like it. He accepted he had perhaps taken his eye off the ball, become complacent.

This was the "knock them down" phase of the process. McIlroy had experienced a little of this after his US Open triumph. The Twitter row with Jay Townsend at the Irish Open and his negative commentary following a disappointing Open at Royal St George's drew a critical response from the media. He recovered to assemble the best sequence of results in his fledgling career. But each reverse brings fresh doubt and requires different solutions. This golfing truth is learnt through experience that McIlroy even now does not have.

On the afternoon of his Wentworth torment he repaired to the range to bash balls, the default response of a golfer in trouble. McIlroy's heart was in the right place but not his head. What he needed was to take a breath, to take his foot off the pedal. Instead he powered on to Nicklaus's Memorial Tournament and another missed cut. After a reprieve in Memphis he fell again at the US Open in San Francisco. The Olympic Club course was nonsense. More than half that made the weekend came through qualifiers. Olympic was not revealing the best golfers but removing their advantage by giving too much weight to caprice.

The world No 1, Luke Donald, and Masters champion, Bubba Watson, also went at the first hurdle but they were not McIlroy, mired in the middle of a nightmare run that now stretched to four missed cuts in six. So far had he fallen, the oddsmakers were offering 25-1 against a victory in the Open at Lytham. Tiger Woods was a single-digit favourite. How daft does that thinking look this morning?

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