Golf

What can McIlroy do for an encore?

Image: Caroline Wozniacki and Rory McIlroy (© Paul Lakatos/AFP via Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy silenced questions about his personal life by playing championship golf.
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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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Rory McIlroy was named PGA Tour Player of the Year on Tuesday.

And in other surprising news, Ian Poulter still douses his hair with gel. . . .

AT THE TOP

Only 23, Rory McIlroy becomes youngest PGA Tour Player of the Year since Tiger Woods.

McIlroy was a lock to win the last big award of the 2012 season given his impressive achievements:

Five wins — including a major, the PGA at Kiawah Island — in 24 starts across the world and nine other top-five finishes, including four runner-ups.

• Won both the PGA Tour and European Tour money titles, earning $11,953,586 to break Tiger Woods' 2007 single-season money record of $10,867,052.

• Extended his lead in the official world golf rankings to 4.33 points over No. 2 Luke Donald, a margin not seen since Woods dominated golf.

• Won both the PGA of America’s Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average and the PGA Tour’s Byron Nelson award for the lowest adjusted scoring average.

“He’s on another stratosphere from everyone else right now,” said Graeme McDowell.

What’s remarkable about McIlroy’s feats is that he was mired in a slump for two months in the early summer. It seems so long ago now, but there were serious doubts about him then.

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He bristled at questions about whether he was spending too much time with tennis player girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki and not enough time on the practice tee.

Of course, no one’s questioning the 23-year-old now.

“He's young, very athletic, got a great swing, seems to work hard at it, seems to have that desire, all the things that you need to succeed out here on a regular basis,” said veteran Steve Stricker.

“And he's got to have a lot of confidence from doing what he's been doing, winning both money titles from this year. He seems to have a great head on his shoulders, which we all know in this game you need. You can't do some of the things he's done without thinking properly.

“You would have thought that he would have been scarred a little bit after shooting 80 at (2011 Masters), but he comes back and wins the very next major. So, obviously, he's got it all. You know, I've been fortunate enough to play with him a few times, and he's got a lot of game. It's fun to watch, and, yeah, he's going to be around for a while.”

In a conference call Tuesday morning, the world No. 1 reflected on his growth as a player.

“Over the past 18 months, especially after winning the US Open, I sort of felt like I went to the next level or the next stage of my career,” he said.

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“I feel like my personality away from the golf course hasn't changed, but definitely when I get to the golf course I'm maybe a little more professional, a little more businesslike and go about my business like that.

“But I guess that's just the way you have to be to be successful and to try and win as many tournaments as you can.”

The question now becomes this: How much better can he get?

“I've sort of had to answer that question a lot the last few weeks: What can you do next season to try and get better and what would be a success next season compared to this one?” he said.

“I guess it's just trying to become a better golfer, a better player, maybe add more variety to my game, add a couple more shots here and there.

“I still feel like I can improve in all aspects of the game. And if I can do that, and my focus is on that, then, hopefully, the tournament wins and the success will come.”

Like his boyhood hero, Tiger Woods, McIlroy sees the four majors as his priority.

“What was disappointing this year for me, if there was a disappointment, is that I was only in contention once in the majors. And, luckily, I was able to win it,” he said.

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“But next year I'd love to be in contention in all four of them and have a chance to win all. Not saying I'm going to win all of them, but at least give myself a chance.”

Those are Tiger-level ambitions, but after winning two majors by eight strokes, perhaps not totally far-fetched.

What this year has taught us is that when McIlroy’s on his game, he’s unstoppable.

If there’s a next step for the amiable Northern Irishman, it’s that he’ll have to learn to do what Woods mastered – winning without his A game.

Tagged: Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy

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