McIlroy faces major expectations now

July 12, 2011

There’s no turning back now for Rory McIlroy.

After the breathtaking eight-shot victory at the US Open, the genie is out of the bottle.

With Tiger Woods’ future very much uncertain, the 22-year-old Northern Irishman is golf’s new star, whether he likes it or not.

Like the north-easterlies that bent flagsticks at Royal St. Georges on Tuesday, Rory-mania is sweeping through the sport; look no further for evidence than the rock-star reception he received upon arriving at the 140th British Open.

Everybody wants a piece of him; all eyes are upon him.

Welcome to life in the fishbowl, kid.

“It has been a bit of a life-changing experience,” the amiable McIlroy admitted on Tuesday.

“I didn’t realize how much of a fuss it would create, or how much of a buzz.

“I thought it was great for me to win the US Open, win my first major.

“The support that I’ve had from people back home, from everyone all over the world, has been pretty overwhelming.”

But has he even seen anything yet?

It’s only been four weeks since his stirring deeds at Congressional Country Club got him crowned as the heir to Tiger’s throne.

This week, he’s the favorite to win back-to-back majors. Some, like Padraig Harrington, have even anointed him the favorite to beat Jack Nicklaus’s majors record of 18.

It’s all both premature and an unfair amount of pressure to place on the shoulders of a 22-year-old.

Especially one who’s only won three tournaments in his professional career.

But it just may be that McIlroy’s no ordinary young man.

He’s grown in immeasurable ways in the past month.

As I watched him handle his pre-tournament news conference on Tuesday with an uncommon ease and maturity, it occurred to me that McIlroy might just have been born for this role.

“No, not at all,” he calmly responded when asked if he might one day wish he’d have avoided all this attention.

“This is what I’ve always wanted to do.

“I’ve always wanted to be a successful golfer and be one of the best players in the world and to win major championships.

“If I have to put up with a few things along the way, then I’m fine with that.

“It’s quite hard to stay anonymous these days (but) if that’s the worst thing I’m complaining about, then I’m doing something right.”

But, as Bad Company forewarned, all the world will love you just as long as you are a shooting star.

So what’s his US Open encore?

He may be the favorite, but can he win at Royal St Georges?

McIlroy hasn’t played since Congressional. Some, like Colin Montgomerie, think that was a mistake.

But McIlroy knows himself. He didn’t play the French Open because “I knew I wouldn’t be giving the best of myself”.

“So I thought, you know what, let’s just get everything out of the way and make sure that your preparation going into the Open is as good as it could be, and that’s really what I’ve done,” he said.

“For me it’s all about preparation. I went into the Masters after three weeks off and shot three pretty good scores there. So it’s not a problem for me not playing competitive golf after having a break.”

He prepared instead with two days of reconnaissance at Royal St. Georges last week.

He was accompanied by his coach, Michael Bannon, who’s been marveling at this prodigy since he was a wee lad.

“I watched him for a couple of days (in Sandwich) and I’ve never seen anything as impressive as the way Rory can strike a golf ball,” Bannon said.

“It’s the purity of the strike. He hits it different. Maybe Tiger Woods or some other great players were similar but I haven’t seen it.”

But it’s not a question of whether McIlroy has the tools to win; he does.

The real question is whether he will be mentally ready.

Or if there will be a US Open hangover.

“It was nice to relax and sort of take it all in after the US Open, but I knew that the time for reflection wasn’t really at this point of the season, it’s at the end,” he said.

“I’ve got to forget what happened three weeks ago and just come in here and try to win another golf tournament.”

It won’t be easy winning on a quirky layout like this and it’s even less realistic to expect that he’ll play as he did at Congressional.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to play that sort of golf every week I tee it up,” he conceded.

Still, if he’s to be the sport’s next great star, he’ll have to find a way to win, even on the days he doesn’t have his A game.

“Expectations are going to be high,” he acknowledged.

“(But) I have high expectations myself.

“I want to go out there and try to win a lot of golf tournaments and become the best player in the world.”

Most telling on Tuesday was McIlroy’s answer to this question: Is it possible that we expect more of him than he does of himself?

“I don’t think so.”