x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Rory McIlroy on first-name terms with sporting greatness

Golf's world No 1 has been attracting so much success and attention that he is being called by his first name by followers. It could be a sign of greatness.

Rory McIlroy has attracted plenty of followers, the kind Tiger Woods used to in the recent past. Yoshua Arias / EPA
Rory McIlroy has attracted plenty of followers, the kind Tiger Woods used to in the recent past. Yoshua Arias / EPA

Rory. You know you're in the presence of sporting greatness when a first name suffices. Diego; Roger; and of course, Tiger.

And now, Rory.

Joint leader with Luke Donald at 17 under, world No 1 Rory McIlroy will today attempt to win the DP World Tour Championship for the first time in his young but staggering career. As the crowds make their way into Jumeirah Golf Estates, there will be little doubt who most of them have come to see.

Donald, former No 1 and current No 2, certainly had his followers. Chants of "Loooke" greeting him at every green. McIlroy, however, remains firmly the darling of the crowd.

Yesterday, every drive, every chip, every putt was cheered with the kind of reverence reserved for the all-time greats. Almost, but not quite, the kind, that until recently in fact, echoed to the swings of Tiger Woods.

There were the usual seasoned golfing fanatics. But there were also many young fans, male and female.

"I only came after watching the Ryder Cup," said one young English lady after she was briefed on golf's basics by a friend. "I'm here to see Rory, and [Ian] Poulter as well." Once again, the first name distinction for the Northern Irishman.

It might sound perverse, but to some of the game's younger, more casual fans, Woods is perhaps better known for his personal troubles than his astonishing achievements on the golf course. But he remains arguably the greatest golfer of all time, his intensity and demeanour transforming the sport's image along the way. Thanks to him, golf was no longer a sport played by old men in funny clothes.

In doing so, he transcended the game itself. Golf fan or not, everyone knew who Tiger was.

But there is a new kid on the block. McIlroy has already taken Woods's old position at the top of the world rankings. Next year, expect the famous Nike swoosh, for long the American's trademark, to adorn McIlroy's chest.

So is Rory the new Tiger?

CNN's Sean O'Donoghue recently sat down with both men, the first time they have ever been interviewed together. It turned out they had a lot in common.

The teenage promise, success at amateur level, dedication to physical training, and those majestic long drives. And of course, being world No 1.

So much for the obvious similarities. But what of the differences?

With McIlroy, there is an added factor for his popularity. The young Irishman genuinely comes across as, to use a cliche, a nice guy, something few would accuse Woods of being. Not for Rory the snarling fist-pumping of success, and the pained expressions of failure.

McIlroy, while undoubtedly driven by the same insatiable desire to succeed as Woods, comes across as a far less abrasive, a far more affable person, whether on the course or off it.

In purely golfing terms, this is no better or worse, merely different. Ultimately, tour wins, world rankings and majors are what you are judged on, what history remembers.

"It's early days for Rory," said an elderly fan after McIlroy had just putted a birdie on the sixth hole. "I like him, but he needs to win many more majors to be up there with Tiger."

He is on the fast track to achieve that. Last week, McIlroy reiterated his belief that golf players are overpaid ("…but I don't mind," he laughed), and insisted that only one thing keeps him motivated: excellence.

"Winning, trying to be the best player that I can be, trying to win majors," McIlroy, who has four wins to his name this year, said. "I've got one in 2011, I backed it up this year with another major winning season. I would love to say 2013 will be similar."

Today, he can wrap up 2012 with yet another triumph in Dubai. He is starting to make a habit of it, racking up the titles the way Woods did in his pomp.

And the bandwagon is gaining momentum. As the players made their way around Jumeirah Golf Estates' Earth course yesterday, hundreds of fans chose to watch the action on the big screens from the comfort of their beanbags and park benches in the village.

Every now then, however, shouts of "Rory's up" would have them rushing to catch a glimpse of the main man.

And when he sank a birdie on the 18th yesterday, there were no over the top histrionics, just a gentle wave to his fans and a shake of the hand for his opponent's caddie. Few would bet against him completing the job today, in his own quiet way.

The new Tiger? No, not yet. But he will care not one bit. At only 23 years old, he has plenty time on his side. Despite struggling with a fever, he was never going to let his fans down. "I want to finish off in great style, and I've given myself a great chance to do that tomorrow."

And they say nice guys don't finish first.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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