x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

World still waits for golf's young king McIlroy to roar

Rory McIlroy talks about separating himself from the rest in the golf rankings. It's proven tougher than he thought.

The world was ready to anoint Rory McIlroy as the new king of golf when he won the US Open in 2011. A year later, McIlroy has briefly been golf's top-ranked player but separating himself from the rest of the field has not been as easy as everyone thought.
The world was ready to anoint Rory McIlroy as the new king of golf when he won the US Open in 2011. A year later, McIlroy has briefly been golf's top-ranked player but separating himself from the rest of the field has not been as easy as everyone thought.

A star was born at last year's US Open.

Rory McIlroy set the kind of records that once belonged to another young phenom - Tiger Woods - when he finished 16 under par and won by eight shots. His opening rounds of 65 and 66 at Congressional effectively ended the tournament before the weekend arrived.

Padraig Harrington suggested that McIlroy, 22, ultimately might be the player to challenge the Jack Nicklaus benchmark of 18 major championships.

One year later, he remains 17 majors away.

Just as challenging is the scrutiny he has faced off the golf course.

His girlfriend is tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, and they have been photographed in Paris and New York, once with McIlroy taking to the court against Maria Sharapova during an exhibition at Madison Square Garden.

After his practice on Tuesday at Olympic Club, he went to AT&T Park to throw out the first pitch at a San Francisco Giants game.

There is even a Rory McIlroy bobblehead doll.

This is the stuff of Hollywood, not his blue-collar hometown of Holywood in Northern Ireland.

It has not all been a life of glitter.

McIlroy fired his agent, Chubby Chandler, who discovered him when he was a teenage prodigy.

The decision pitted McIlroy against Lee Westwood, leading to a few awkward exchanges on Twitter.

McIlroy also made headlines for throwing a club on his way to missing the cut at Wentworth.

They used to talk about McIlroy because of his golf and his potential.

Now they talk about McIlroy for just about any reason.

"The most that's changed about my life? Sure, I think I'm viewed different by the golfing public, and maybe more recognised outside of golf now because of that win," he said.

"And the thing that's changed about me? It's really just given me a lot of self-belief knowing that I've won one of these before and that I can go and I can do it again.

"Hopefully, it didn't change me much as a person. I still feel like the same person who sat here, or sat at Congressional, a year ago and was doing a press conference."

He is holding his own in that department.

When he missed the cut at Memorial for his third successive weekend off, he was drawing comparisons with Woods for all the wrong reasons.

Woods never missed three consecutive cuts in his career. It was the eighth cut McIlroy had missed in his young career, as many as Woods had missed in 16 years.

And on it went.

Such comparisons are a disservice to Woods. He does not deserve to be compared with anyone except the players before him - mostly Nicklaus.

Even as he works his way back, no one is close to what Woods has accomplished in golf, starting with the fact he won 54 times and 10 majors before turning 30.

McIlroy is getting the most scrutiny of any golfer since Woods, and though it is still but a fraction, he is embracing it with good humour.

It is hard to imagine Woods taking to the tennis court on television and risking making himself look foolish, even in good fun.

Can anyone recall Woods agreeing to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game before a major golf championship?

"It's just finding a balance of everything, with getting enough practice, sponsor commitments, media, what tournaments to play, having a life outside of what you do around golf. And it's something I still feel like I'm learning to do," McIlroy said.

"I'm not complaining. I feel like I'm in a great place. And I'm happy to be doing what I'm doing."

What has not changed is the perception of McIlroy on the golf course.

His talent is wondrous.

Most players would tell you no one has more natural ability, a swing with that majestic blend of balance and power.

He can go at it hard without looking like he is even trying.

Ultimately, though, everyone is measured by results.

McIlroy was putting together the kind of consistency that leads to greatness.

He had a stretch of 11 tournaments in which he won twice, was runner-up four times and only once finished lower than fifth.

He reached No 1 for the first time on a big stage, in a manner that Woods could appreciate - McIlroy won the Honda Classic with Woods charging at him with a 62.

But he did not stay there.

McIlroy returned to No 1 twice more since March, but not for long.

Luke Donald, who is not nearly as flashy and does not have a major title to his credit, is not going away very easily.

Six weeks ago, McIlroy talked about wanting to separate himself in the rankings and leave as little doubt as possible about who was No 1 in golf. That has proven to be tougher than he thought.

"You've really got to have a good stretch of golf, say a six-month period, where you might win three or four times, and you have a lot of good finishes," he said.

"And maybe then, you can start to establish a bit of a lead. But for the time being, everyone just seems to be pretty close. And it looks like that's the way it's going to be for a while."

And while McIlroy keeps battling Donald for golf supremacy, another challenge may be looming.

With his second win of the year against another strong field, Woods is at No 4 and perhaps starting to close in.

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