Rory McIlroy is right where he belongs — in a league of his own.
That’s the way it has always been.
McIlroy concluded his 2012 season Sunday at Dubai with a victory in the European Tour finale. He is the top-ranked player in the world and the reigning money champion on both the Euro and PGA tours.
I first saw McIlroy play in the 2003 British Boys Championship at Royal Liverpool when he was 14. I had heard all the hype, but I have to say I wasn’t sure it was justified. McIlroy lost in the first round to unknown Englishman Graham Benson.
However, it soon became clear that McIlroy was a class apart. It was obvious he wasn’t like other juniors. For a start, he didn’t play many junior events. That was the only British Boys Championship he played in.
Unlike other youngsters, he seemed intent on testing himself against bigger opposition. He was selected for the Great Britain & Ireland Jacques Leglise team on several occasions but didn’t play. Geoff Toye, the then chairman of selectors of the GB&I team, tried hard to persuade McIlroy to play, but to no avail.
“I would have loved Rory to play, but it was clear he wasn’t interested in boys’ golf,” Toye said. “He was head and shoulders above the rest, and I suppose he wanted to play against better opposition.”
East Tennessee State was at one time supposed to help prepare McIlroy for professional golf. He signed a letter of intent to play for Fred Warren’s team but decided against it because he didn’t want to wait four years to turn pro.
Indeed, the only reason McIlroy played in the 2007 Walker Cup was because it was being held in his own backyard. If the match had been held anywhere other than Royal County Down, Northern Ireland, then McIlroy would have turned professional after winning the silver medal as leading amateur in the British Open at Carnoustie.
What also set McIlroy apart from the pack — and continues to set him apart in the pro game — is his attitude to coaching. While many players waste no time in changing coaches once they get into the pro game, McIlroy has remained true to Michael Bannon.
Bannon coached McIlroy as a boy and continues to oversee his swing. It would be a surprise if McIlroy does a Tiger Woods and starts to chop and change. His swing hasn’t changed since he was a boy. He takes an evolutionary approach rather than a revolutionary one. And why not? Why tinker with arguably the most natural golf swing the game has ever seen?
What surprises me most about McIlroy’s climb to the top of the world pecking order is the way he has left others in his dust. Scotland’s Lloyd Saltman was a rival to McIlroy during their amateur days. Indeed, the Scot bettered McIlroy in the 2007 Lytham Trophy, defeating McIlroy by a shot. Yet while McIlroy has gone on to nosebleed heights and untold riches, Saltman is still on the European Challenge Tour.
Oliver Fisher was the other young star in amateur golf along with McIlroy. They both came through Nick Faldo’s elite squad. Yet Fisher has only one European Tour win, last year’s Czech Open.
While we in the media do our utmost to talk up a Rory McIlroy-Tiger Woods rivalry, it might be just a pipe dream. Just as he’s left Saltman and Fisher in his dust, McIlroy is so on top of his game right now that he might just leave Woods behind too.