Ulsterman McIlroy has a huge task at Sandwich this week as, since the Second World War, no first-time major winner has triumphed next time out on the biggest stage, writes James Corrigan
Rory McIlroy has learned to treat obstacles exactly the same way he treats bunkers — he simply flies over them. But in golf, certain barriers are not so easily bypassed, history being the most belligerent.
Of course, the game's record books are packed with their precedents, but in a world full of progress it is strange how rarely those old tomes are dusted down to mark a new entry. McIlroy managed to do so at Congressional three weeks ago with his startling US Open triumph, meaning that he heads to Sandwich for this week's Open Championship with the bookmakers, among others, predicting a reprise.
McIlroy is the youngest favourite for a major since a certain Eldrick Woods teed it up in the late Nineties with the word “phenomenon” ringing in his ears. Woods proceeded to justify the tag, yet it is interesting that after winning his first major (by 12 shots) at 21, it was nearly two-and-a- half years before he won his next.
For once, Woods was merely obeying the norm. Since the Second World War, every debutant major-winner has been made to wait at least one major before following up.
The implication for McIlroy is clear. He will not merely be facing 155 rivals at Royal St George's but also the legends of Woods, Nicklaus, Palmer, Player and Ballesteros. McIlroy is 22 years, two months, and nobody in modern times has won two majors so young. That is the glory beckoning McIlroy on the Kent coast.
Naturally, the magnitude of the accomplishment will make it that much more challenging. McIlroy will have to blank out the scale of the achievement as well as overcome the other hurdles separating him from a central role in golfing folklore. As far as McIlroy is concerned these can perhaps be divided into six categories.
It is the favourite cliché of the locker room — “Play one shot at a time, stay in the moment.” It sounds so straightforward, but the temptation to look forward to the Sunday prize-giving claims countless victims.
Yet just as destructive can be the urge to look backwards. Major successes do something to players, make them look at themselves differently — as champions, no less.
It takes time to sink in, to keep the emotions in check. It's a life- changer, a brain-changer, as Graeme McDowell confirms.
“Nobody knows how anyone will respond, but speaking personally my head was still in the clouds and it all felt a bit surreal,” said McIlroy's great friend, who followed up last year's US Open win with a tie for 23rd at St Andrews. “But Rory has been thinking about winning majors since he was four, so it won't have come as much of a shock to him.”
Colin Montgomerie expressed the widely held view last week that McIlroy would have been advised to play one of the three events between the majors.
“Not because of any fears with his game — he is so natural, rust won't affect him,” said the Scot. “But just getting all the congratulations out of the way in the locker room. Everyone will want a handshake, everyone will want a chat. That's bloody tiring, and I'm concerned Rory may be mentally tired when he's on the first tee on Thursday.”
It is a fair point, although McIlroy's tactic of not turning up until late on the Tuesday may ensure the backslapping is kept to a minimum.
Says Ian Poulter: “That's smart of Rory. He should be as mentally fresh as possible when he plays his first round. There's so much going on at majors, Rory is wise to have done all his reconnaissance work early and leave it as late as he can to return.”
His manager has expressed concerns about his discomfort in the wind, as has his own father. The memory of his second-round 80 last year at a gale-ravaged St Andrews inevitably burns bright in most minds.
With his high ball-flight, McIlroy cannot be suited to the prevalent conditions on a seaside links, can he? Stuart Cage, his closest handler, is not so pessimistic.
“People say he can't play in the wind, but Rory can play any shot he wants,” said the former Tour pro. “He can hit a driver knee-high to a grasshopper if he wants.
“He hasn't played great in the wind as a pro, but there haven't been many occasions and I recall him finishing top five at the European Open when it was blowing a hoolie. The other occasions you can probably just put down to the fact he wasn't playing well that day. He won't be worried if it blows.”
“You need a bit of luck to win on a links,” says Padraig Harrington. And at Sandwich, with its bouncy, hog-backed fairways, one can substitute “a bit” for “a lot”.
The effects of the draw are another factor. Louis Oosthuizen, as impressive as he was in 2010, missed the worst of the weather. McIlroy can't do much about that but, as Harrington says, he must accept whatever is thrown in his direction.
“If you rage against the bad fortune, the many variables of links golf, then you are beaten before you start,” says the two-time Open champion.
If McIlroy is in any doubt the circumstances have changed he need only look at the security detail which will accompany him along the way.
With Woods missing, there will be hundreds of journalists and photographers accompanying the thousands of fans who will make it their mission to watch every shot he plays and analyse every emotion he portrays.
“It'll be madness,” is the prediction of his manager, Chubby Chandler. For McIlroy it will be like trying to stay concentrated on a roller-coaster.
At 6-1, McIlroy is still six times more likely not to win. But he is favourite and must carry the favourite's mantle, which in The Open is pretty cumbersome. Only three times in the past 20 years has the market leader triumphed. Each time his surname has been Woods. And therein lies the size of the ask.