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How Rory cleaned up in Washington
Rory McIlroy’s performance at the US Open raised too high the expectations of his chances at Sandwich, but there’s no denying the manner of his victory at Congressional was extraordinary

So, Rory McIlroy did not win the Open. I say this because anyone who hadn’t watched the championship or known of its outcome could have been forgiven for thinking, on the basis of many of the preview stories, that the 22-year-old prodigy who says of himself on his Twitter homepage “I hit a little white ball around a field sometimes!” only had to turn up, play four rounds and – hey presto – the claret jug would be full of Guinness.

As it happens, of course, it was a different Ulsterman who claimed the spoils at Royal St George’s. For Rory, Sandwich was too much of a buffeting. “I’d rather play when it’s 80 degrees [I’m assuming he meant Fahrenheit] and sunny and not much wind,” he said. Rather like conditions were when he made Maryland his fairyland the previous month. In this column two issues ago, in light of McIlroy’s failure to win the Masters despite the comfort of a four-shot lead going into Sunday, I mentioned how no one is ever a cert to win a major, no matter how talented

they are, and repeated the oft-made point that McIlroy’s putting was not at the same level as the rest of his game. Within two months, how that perception had been turned on its head. At Congressional, his long game was fabulous (he hit 62 greens in regulation, one of several US Open records he annexed) and his putting rock solid. Working on the latter under the supervision of Dave Stockton, whose personal career highlights included winning the USPGA Championship at Congressional in 1976, paid the richest of dividends.

Having found a four-shot lead insufficient at Augusta, McIlroy doubled his 54-hole advantage this time around. He surely couldn’t lose with an eight-shot lead, could he? Well, Nick Faldo had made up 11 shots on Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters; Arnold Palmer had blown the 1966 US Open after being seven shots ahead with just nine holes to play.

If there were any doubts in McIlroy’s mind they were dissipated after four holes, which he played in two under par, putting with supreme assurance. “Once he started [like that], we were all playing for second,” said Lee Westwood. That position went to Jason Day, eight shots back.

With McIlroy having dominated the championship from the off, it was close to impossible to avoid being drawn towards comparisons with the most commanding victories of the week’s notable missing luminary. When Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters and the 2000 US Open and Open, those victories were achieved by 12, 15 and 8 shots, respectively. One has to remember that Louis Oosthuizen won the Open at St Andrews last year by seven shots, so perhaps some caution is due amid the approbation, but what was Woods-like was the emphatic fashion in which McIlroy subdued first the course and then his rivals. The near hole-in-one he had at the 10th in the final round was effectively the prelude to an 8-hole victory parade.

Among the records he set, McIlroy became the only player to have broken 270 in the US Open. (The feat has never been done in the Masters.) His total of 268 has only been bettered or matched twice in the Open – by champions Greg Norman (267) in 1993 and Nick Price (268) the following year – and five times in the USPGA. These were in 1995, the 267s of Steve Elkington and Colin Montgomerie at Riviera (would you believe it? Monty is on an exclusive list of major-championship achievement and he didn’t win one!), and by David Toms (265), Phil Mickelson (266) and Steve Lowery (268) at the Atlanta Athletic Club in 2001.

In the media tent later, McIlroy took a photo of the assembled press corps and one of the trophy. “I have to tweet it,” he said. “I’ve waited all week to do this.” As the American writer, Ron Sirak, noted in Golf World (US): “In nearly 15 years as a pro, nothing close to that spontaneous ever occurred with Woods.”

For all his dispirited talk after the Open – “There’s no point in changing your game for one week a year…you either deal with the weather or just wait for a year when it’s nice…I’m not a fan of tournaments when the outcome is [determined] so much by the weather” – there seems a genuine joie de vivre about McIlroy. Back on his Twitter, he bantered with Ian Poulter while they were both at the Champions League Final in May, when Barcelona played Manchester United. Poulter poked fun at McIlory, a Man U fan, for ‘only’ having corner seats in the stadium, versus him being in an executive box. Rory’s response was direct and amusing. “With the real supporters…Here to be heard not seen!!” Soon after, this was followed by “oh and I actually paid for my ticket unlike some.” (Punctuation not mine.)

Tom Watson recently said it took him four years before he relished the challenge of links golf, by which point he’d won two Opens. McIlroy will learn to cope with it, too, perhaps even to love it. He has time on his side – for example, 20 more years of it until he gets to Darren Clarke’s age.

August 2011

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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