Rory McIlroy: What Makes Golf's New World Number One Tick?

Number one for the first time in his career after winning the Honda Classic, Rory McIlroy can reign for years. When I first met him in 2006, he was a callow 15-year-old with a glint in his eye and talent to burn...
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Number one for the first time in his career after winning the Honda Classic, Rory McIlroy can reign for years. When I first met him in 2006, he was a callow 15-year-old with a glint in his eye and talent to burn...

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The first time I clapped eyes on Rory McIlroy I wished I was somewhere else. It was at the 2006 Faldo Series Final at Celtic Manor and the weather was brutal. 40 mph winds, skies blacker than Hitler's heart and the sort of driving rain that you only get in Wales. I was ostensibly there to follow Ben Evans, a diarist for the magazine I was working for and his opponent in the final, but my attentions soon turned to the liquid swing of a slight lad wearing a white bobble hat and enough rain gear to make it look like he was tearing up the golf course in a sumo suit.

I followed him for the rest of the round and although I can't remember all of the details, I will never forget the third hole. An uphill par-five, it was playing directly into the jaws of a hurricane. Trees, caddies and soaking journalists struggled to stand up in it. McIlroy made the best par I have ever seen in the flesh, and that includes Ryder Cups, Open Championships and myriad tournaments the world over. I can't be entirely sure of the clubs, but I'm pretty sure he went driver, three-wood, mid-iron, chip and a putt. The wind was playing havoc with the trajectory of the ball, but the 17-year-old leathered every shot low off his front foot, the ball screaming through the wind and giving it two fingers as it carried on regardless.

What struck me about his performance on a freezing day in Wales was exactly what struck me watching him win this weekend and every other time I have seen him play in between – his complete and utter confidence in his ability, his down-to-earth nature and that his swing is made of liquid gold. I’d love to say that I was convinced he would be a world-beater that day but it would be a lie. He looked great, don’t get me wrong, he was a plus five amateur, but for every Rory McIlroy there is a Freddy Adu and it is impossible to extrapolate a career based on 18 holes or one overhead kick.

"The goal is to be playing on the PGA Tour in ten years and winning Major Champions and Ryder Cups"

Not that he was ever in doubt.

Sitting in an ante-chamber of the cavernous Celtic Manor after we’d both dried off, him clutching a coke and me a coffee with a large brandy in it, he said this. "I definitely see myself as a golfer, the goal is to be playing on the PGA Tour in ten years and winning Major Champions and Ryder Cups.” At the time it struck me as no more than extreme confidence, but it was the way he said it, no arrogance whatsoever, just a mantra that he had probably been telling himself since he was 12. We also talked about Tiger, how he was his hero and how he’d love to just play 18 holes with him ‘someday’.

In the five years since I met him for the first time he has helped Europe win a Ryder Cup, won the US Open, come close to winning The Masters and Open and broke several of Tiger’s scoring records to boot. He stands above the original phenomenon in the world rankings and is the superstar that golf needs. Untarnished, down-to-earth, smiling rather than swearing and snarling and possessing the same swing he has had since he was five.

I probably saw or spoke to him ten times after that first meeting. I had a chat and a burger with him on the range at the 2007 Open when he won the Silver Medal for best amateur, I bumped into him in Dubai when he won the Desert Classic and I can honestly say that he is completely unchanged by it all. He thinks of himself as a good golfer from Holywood in Northern Ireland.

He told me that day about his parents, about the sacrifices they had made so he could have the latest kit, how he liked to go shopping with his missus and go to the cinema with his mates and, though the clubs now come for free and he could probably get Belfast closed for the day, internally he is the same person. Tiger had so much smoke blown up his a*se for so long that he considered himself untouchable, a demi-god, an icon, he ignored one of the golden rules of stardom– don’t believe the hype, especially when it is your own.

The pressure of course starts now. He is favourite for the Open and PGA Championships and the bookies have him at a miserly 5/2 to win five majors by 2020

What makes McIlroy tick is winning golf tournaments and fulfilling his talent. He doesn’t need to grandstand, his club manufacturers haven’t made him do adverts introducing himself to the free-world and he isn’t, thank god, managed by the odious Mark Steinberg. Witness him thanking his Dad yesterday and you know he'll never be followed by the National Enquirer and caught in a car park with a waitress.

When he melted on the final day of the Masters last April, one commentator said, “if he never wants to play golf again, I think we could all understand.” But there was no hiding from McIlroy, he was tweeting within hours of his loss and, basically, said that it was all good experience and that he’d learn from it. Now he is the world number one for the first time in his career and will go into the Masters next month as the favourite. I, for one, will be having a cheeky nifty on him doing it.

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