The San Francisco Giants unveiled a new star pitcher in front of 35,000 last night. This was not quite the curve ball girlfiend Caroline Wozniacki lobbed his way at Madison Square Garden in March, more a symbol of Rory McIlroy’s rising profile in the United States.
McIlroy begins the defence of his U.S Open championship across the city at Olympic Club tomorrow. To mark the occasion the Giants invited McIlroy to ‘throw’ the first pitch and presented him with the ultimate token of baseball celebrity; the bobblehead, a miniature figurine of himself in Giants colours. “I think it’s maybe better looking than me, which is a good thing,” McIlroy said, betraying a demeanour markedly more relaxed than in recent weeks.
McIlroy was a pulled tee shot at the last from a second PGA Tour win of the season in Memphis on Sunday, and feels suitably reconstituted ahead of his first round tomorrow. “I think it's only natural you start to question yourself and question your game a little bit. So to play a solid tournament in Memphis and have a chance to win was great,” McIlroy said.
“It was a disappointing last few holes. But leading up to that point I felt like I played some really good golf. I hadn't played that sort of golf for a few weeks. So it was nice, especially coming into this week.”
McIlroy has been to a degree downgraded in San Francisco by the resurgence of Tiger Woods, who comes into the tournament a short-odds favourite at the bookies and in the hearts of the galleries. McIlroy is at the start of the celebrity process that ultimately brought Woods low and has yet to intuit the best way forward. “I think I'm viewed differently by the golfing public, for sure, and maybe more recognized outside of golf now because of that win.”
On the course the impact of his record victory at Congressional has been easier to measure. It is glimpsed in the eyes of opponents, who shrink an inch or two in his presence, and in his stats since, which boast a run of 13 top five finishes in 15 events prior to last month’s missed cut at the Players Championship. “It's really just given me a lot of self-belief knowing that I've won one of these before and that I can do it again. I feel like I have a chance in these tournaments every time I tee it up.”
The novelty slot that not too long ago was McIlroy’s own has passed for this tournament at least to a 14-year-old boy from Beijing. Andy Zhang, who moved to the United States four years ago, was handed his chance following the withdrawal of Paul Casey. Yesterday he played a practice round with Masters champion Bubba Watson. “My phone has been exploding for the past 24 hours,” Zhang said.
“I have never played in front of a crowd this big. I was shaking on the first tee and I guess I will get used to it. It feels like a dream. Before I came here I asked my caddie and advisor Chris can I like go on to the range and ask the pros for autographs. He said no, you are giving out autographs.”
McIlroy smiled at the anecdote. “When I was 14 I was getting prepared to play in my club championship, not the U.S. Open. It's an unbelievable experience for someone so young. I think he should just enjoy it and take it all in and just realise that he's got so much more time to develop and mature. By the time he's 18 he'll feel like a veteran.”