(Eds: With AP Photos.)By DOUG FERGUSONAP Golf Writer
So much felt the same to Rory McIlroy.
Draped behind his seat was a white banner filled with red-and-blue USGA logos, similar to the backdrop a year ago when he last faced a room full of reporters at the U.S. Open. The only thing missing was the silver trophy, which McIlroy had to return this week.
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So much has changed.
A star was born last year at Congressional. McIlroy set the kind of records that once belonged to another young phenom – Tiger Woods – when he finished at 16-under 268 to win by eight shots. He was so good that the tournament effectively ended before the weekend arrived when McIlroy opened with rounds of 65-66, which included a double bogey.
Padraig Harrington suggested that the 22-year-old McIlroy ultimately might be the guy to challenge the Jack Nicklaus benchmark of 18 majors.
The kid remains 17 majors away.
Just as challenging is the scrutiny he faces 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 the court against Maria Sharapova during an exhibition at Madison Square Garden. After his practice Tuesday at Olympic Club, he was headed to AT&T Park to throw out the first pitch at a San Francisco Giants game. There’s even a Rory McIlroy bobblehead doll.
This is the stuff of Hollywood, not his blue-collar hometown of Holywood in Northern Ireland.
It hasn’t 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 across Britain for tossing 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 recognized 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,” he added, ”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’s holding his own in that department.
When he missed the cut at Memorial for his third straight weekend off, he was drawing comparisons with Woods for all the wrong reasons. Woods never missed three straight 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 doesn’t 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’s still but a fraction, he is embracing it with good humor. It’s 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 before a major?
”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 hasn’t 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’s 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. That included three World Golf Championships.
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 didn’t stay there.
McIlroy returned to No. 1 twice more since March, but not for long. Luke Donald, who is not nearly as flashy and doesn’t 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 ranking 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.