Years ago, while wandering through the men’s locker room at Flushing Meadows, NY, I made a move for the Gatorade dispenser at the same time as a tennis player.
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Feeling that I was something of a trespasser — and knowing how unpleasant some of these guys could be — I gestured for him to go first.
But he smiled the gentlest of smiles and insisted that I should go ahead.
The player was Roger Federer, the then reigning US Open champion and one of those No. 1s who weren’t, as people, really No. 2s. (Unlike, for example, Lleyton Hewitt).
Federer wasn’t just poetry in motion — the most wondrous tennis player these eyes have ever seen — but a fundamentally decent human being whom fame didn’t change.
Suffice to say that, at just 22, Rory McIlroy is a starting to remind me a lot of Federer.
“To be honest, it doesn’t feel much different,” the Northern Irishman said about his first 48 hours as world No. 1.
“My goals and my attitude haven’t changed. I just want to go about my business and get myself into contention in golf tournaments and try to win them.”
It was refreshing to hear him speak about how to handle celebrity, the disease that destroys many a great athlete.
“I feel like I do thrive in the spotlight, and I like the attention,” he said of being the world’s top-ranked player. “Not saying that I’m an attention-seeker, but you’re doing something right when you’re in the spotlight.”
After a few days off, McIlroy was back at work on Tuesday, returning to headline a star-studded field including Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at the Cadillac Championship at Doral this week.
“It’s been nice to sort of get away from golf a little bit and reflect and sort of let it sink in,” he said.
He didn’t quite get away from the spotlight, finding himself on center court at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, playing a point with Maria Sharapova.
“I’ve never been so nervous in my life,” he said. “I can hit a golf shot in front of a million people, but getting up there . . . I mean, I wanted to hit a serve, but I was thinking, if I frame this into the crowd, it’s going to look so bad.
“So just a nice little under-arm, over the net. Maria was nice, she hit it back to me at quite a gentle pace.”
How’d he end up on the court?
“It was because Maria had got someone from the crowd to dance with, and then (his girlfriend) Caroline (Wozniacki) turned to the crowd and said, is there any hot guys that want to dance with me?
“And I’m like, well, I don’t want anyone else dancing with you, so I put my hand up. Thank God she didn’t ask me to dance. I was much happier hitting a tennis shot.”
I asked McIlroy whether he’d had a quiet moment to himself to reflect on what he had achieved with his victory on Sunday at the Honda Classic, where he held his nerve to finish ahead of Woods.
“There’s a couple of points on Sunday night when I was flying up to New York where I just was sort of sitting there on the plane and reflecting on the day,” he said.
“And the way that I did it on Sunday, with Tiger making the charge, it was almost more satisfying to do it that way, knowing that I held up under pretty intense pressure when I needed to.
“I can’t sit here and lie and say that it didn’t feel better to have Tiger post a score and to be able to play solid. It maybe made it feel a little sweeter than if it had been someone else.”
He spoke a lot about Woods on Tuesday, though he steered clear of any talk of a rivalry between the two, who are separated by 14 years.
“I think it’s more the media that build up the rivalries,” he said. “In golf, you can have a rival if you want, but at the end of the day your biggest rival is a golf course. You have to beat that.
“If people want to say there’s a rivalry, so be it, but I don’t see myself as anyone’s rival out here. I just see myself as Rory McIlroy and going out there and trying to play good golf and winning tournaments.”
He also — very astutely — resisted comparisons between himself and Woods.
“I’m not going to try and compare myself to anyone else,” he said. “I’ve never said that I want to be the next anyone. I just want to be the first Rory McIlroy.
“However good that turns out to be, then I’ll try my best to win tournaments and to win majors and to be the best player in the world.
“But it’s never like I set out to win 18 majors like Tiger has.”
Though McIlroy is the freshly-minted No. 1, it’s possible for Luke Donald to reclaim the top spot with a win this week.
But that doesn’t faze McIlroy, either.
“I’m trying to come in here trying to win this tournament, I’m not trying to come in here and calculate what I need to do to stay No. 1,” he said.
Both Donald and Lee Westwood noted on Tuesday that it’s tough to get to the top, but tougher to stay there.