Rory McIlroy on course to hit new heights, says Nick Faldo
Nick Faldo laughed when I asked him if Northern Ireland truly was “the golf capital of the world.”
The six-time major champion didn't say no though in response to the famous tweet from Rory McIlroy after Darren Clarke won The Open Championship last year.
Clarke's victory at Royal St George's made it three major triumphs in 13 months for our wee country following on from Graeme McDowell's US Open success in 2010 and McIlroy's glory in the same tournament in 2011.
Since then of course the Holywood hero has gone on to win the USPGA this year, adding more weight to the claim.
Sir Nick, who this week has been in Fermanagh at the Lough Erne resort which is hosting his own Faldo Series tournament, said: “Considering the population numbers here and the ratio to other countries the success of Northern Ireland golfers has been pretty amazing. That was an amazing run (with Graeme, Rory and Darren winning majors). You are on a roll and will continue to be on a roll for a while I would have thought with Rory.”
Like Faldo once upon a time, world number one McIlroy seems to be unstoppable right now.
After wobbles earlier in the season, the 23-year-old secured the second major of his career with that USPGA victory and is on course to collect a $10m prize (£7.15m) next week in Atlanta when the FedEx Play-offs climax. That's thanks to recent thrilling successes in the Deutsche Bank and BMW Championships when even a back to form Tiger Woods couldn't keep up with McIlroy.
“Rory is on top of the world right now in more ways than one,” says Faldo.
“He is the centre of attention and to dust off Tiger over the last couple of weeks is big news, so good on him.”
I ask how many majors Faldo, who has three Opens and three Masters titles under his belt, thinks McIlroy could win. Could he surpass the record number of 18 won by Jack Nicklaus?
Faldo, (55), says: “I will be very impressed if he gets to seven and then we can worry about 19 after that! In theory though he has got 20 years playing golf and the way he is playing at present anything is possible.
“You don't know what will unfold but the fact that he has made major tournaments the absolute priority in his career and obviously he has the ability to raise his game and mindset for those weeks makes him different to other guys.
“He is now the target. Very quickly he has become the guy to watch in your mirror if you are going to win a major. You are going to have to beat Rory now.”
I sense Faldo sees a lot of his own winning mentality in the young Ulsterman.
“I used to love stepping up the intensity in major tournaments and Rory enjoys them as well.
“He needs that to play his best.”
McIlroy has become the face of golf and as such is expected to shine every time he enters a tournament. Faldo has been there and done that.
“When you are walking into a golf course and shooting good numbers it's easy to tell a story, but if your game goes off the questions get harder and you don't want to be answering the questions.
“That's when it gets tough,” adds Sir Nick.
While the Holywood star's every move on the course is poured over, he is also box office away from the fairways and greens meaning that he ends up on the front pages as well as the back relating to his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, or whether he will choose Team GB or Team Ireland when taking part in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
What would Faldo's advice to McIlroy be on that tricky subject?
“Say nothing,” is the Englishman's initial reply.
He adds: “It's a difficult one for him but I don't think it should have been brought up at this stage.”