Regardless how he performed at yesterday’s windswept climax to the USPGA Championship, the timing of Rory McIlroy’s emergence as a true contender on golf’s Major championship stage is of huge significance for his sport.
he sight of Tiger Woods yesterday among the also-rans at Whistling Straits yesterday fighting in vain to clinch his Ryder Cup place underlined just how far the World No 1’s star has fallen — and with it, the TV ratings.
Since dragging his sport out of the country club with his meteoric Major championship breakthrough at the 1997 US Masters, Tiger ensured golf would retain its mass appeal with his mesmeric feats over the next 12 years.
Yet even before the middle-aged Tiger’s private life was sullied by scandal last November, the game already was crying out for a young player with enough raw talent and charisma to make kids want to pick up a golf club.
With more than €7m banked in prizemoney and as much again earned from lucrative sponsorship deals and endorsement contracts, McIlroy has long enjoyed the trappings of stardom.
Meanwhile, his reputation within the game has soared with his mesmeric progress up the world rankings.
McIlroy first made the world’s top-20 with his breakthrough win on the European Tour at the Dubai Desert Classic in February last year.
He broke into the top-10 as he finished second to International Sports Management Stablemate Lee Westwood in the Race to Dubai last November.
The Holywood youngster then copper-fastened his place among the game’s super-elite with last May’s sensational first US PGA Tour victory in May, soaring from the cut mark to glory with rounds of 66 and 62 at the weekend.
Yet the elite professional golfer has always been measured by his performance at the Majors.
McIlroy has graduated to a new level at golf’s Grand Slam Championships with the maturity, assurance and, yes, patience he showed on Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan shore.
Twice before, McIlroy had finished third at the Majors — last year’s US PGA at Hazeltine National and in the Open at St Andrews, where victory hopes set soaring by Thursday’s record 63 were literally blown asunder by a wind-tossed 80 on the second day.
On that occasion, McIlroy allowed frustration get the better of him, a situation best summed-up by veteran US golf-writer Dan Jenkins when he ‘Tweeted’ “the kid’s too young to know that 76 is a good score”.
McIlroy fought back brilliantly over the weekend at St Andrews and, to his credit, still enjoys the distinction of never shooting a round in the 70’s at the Old Course.
Yet until yesterday, he’d never given himself the chance to feel the buzz of anticipation, that rush of adrenalin, which only those within reach of victory feel when they wake up on the Sunday morning of a Major championship.
McIlroy was among those who helped Darren Clarke blow out the 42 candles on his birthday cake and douse the roaring blaze of his temper at a party at The Horse and Plough restaurant on the nearby American Club Resort.
In the words of one observer, Clarke was ‘chewing razor blades’ after three bogeys in the final nine holes of his third round had wrecked the elder Ulsterman’s own prospects of a prominent finish at the US PGA.
Yet, typically, it wasn’t long before Clarke was coaxed back into party mood and by the end of the evening he once again had returned to that fatherly old refrain, urging McIlroy to “be patient” in the final round “at least 14 times” over dinner, one close friend observed with a chuckle.
McIlroy’s stock and trade is his ball-striking but it was the youngster’s short game and, especially, his putting which shone brightest in the third round as he landed in cloying rough and deep trouble beside the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth greens.
It’s a measure of the work McIlroy did with English putting guru Dr Paul Hurrion at Firestone last week that he’d 12 one-putts on in the third round.
More significantly, he dropped just one shot, at the teasing eighth hole, in a mid-round spell which, in the recent past, might have had steam issuing from McIlroy’s ears.
As one would expect of a wealthy and sublimely talented young man in a hurry, McIlroy parks a high-performance car, his 197 mph Audi R8 V10, alongside the custom-built Range Rover in
the garage at the nine bedroom home (including annexe) he shares with parents, Gerry and Rosie, on 14 acres outside the Co Down village of Moneyreagh.
Yet an interesting metaphor lies in his recent decision to opt for an Audi instead of the Lamborghini he’d been driving — as it handles the bumps and thumps of driving on public roads a little better.
After slipping to three-over through the first four holes of this Championship, how good it was to see the comfort with which McIlroy handled the road back into contention, following-up on Thursday’s 71 with rounds of 68 and 67 to lie three strokes behind Nick Watney going onto yesterday’s final round.