Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rory McIlroy Was On Fire


For those in the know from his earliest years in Holywood outside Belfast, it was just a matter of time before Rory McIlroy joined the ranks of major winners in golf.

Like Tiger Woods, he was a child prodigy.

Young McIlroy hit a 40-yard drive at the age of two and entertained visitors by repeatedly chipping balls from the end of his parents' hallway into the drum of their washing machine.

On Sunday at Congressional Golf Club, a haven for stressed-out US presidents and lawmakers, the 22-year-old Ulsterman completed one of the finest victories in the long history of golf's four majors.

He led from wire-to-wire to capture the US Open by eight strokes, in what many believe will be the first of a string of major titles and the start of a new era in the sport.

Once again, he is being compared to Woods, whose first major win came at the 1997 Masters when, as a 22-year-old like McIlroy, he romped away from the best golfers on the planet to win by seven strokes.

If anyone knows McIlroy well as a player and a person it is Graeme McDowell, a fellow Ulsterman and regular Ryder Cup partner who McIlroy succeeded as US Open champion here.

"For any kids sitting watching at home right now, he's playing golf the way it should be played, as far as his attitude and just the way he carries himself," he said.

"He's going to be a great ambassador for the sport. Will he achieve what Tiger was doing around 2000, 15 major championships to date or whatever he's got? Can he be that good? Yeah. He's got that potential.

Born in the small County Down coastal town of Holywood to an Ulster Catholic family, McIlroy's parents, Gerry and Rosie, quickly recognized that he had a natural talent for the game of golf and they sacrificed time and money to help him realise his potential.

The results were immediate and their boy was crowned world junior champion at the age of 10 in San Diego and by the time he was 16 he was ranked the top amateur in the world.

But it was in 2007 that he first exploded onto the international stage with an eye-catching performance as an 18-year-old at the 2007 Carnoustie British Open.

Playing in cold, windy conditions on one of the tougest courses on the Open schedule, the tousel-haired youngster came in with a three-under 68, the only player not to shoot a bogey that day.

He eventually finished tied for 42nd, but won the silver medal rewarding the top amateur and shortly after that he turned pro,

McIlroy quickly made his mark. Of medium build and not particulartly muscular, McIlroy possessed a purity of swing, allied to a bristling self-confidence that marked him out from the others.

He won his first European Tour event at the Dubai Desert Classic on February 1, 2009 which took him to 16th in the world rankings.

Mark O'Meara, who played with him on that occasion was moved to comment: "Ball-striking wise at 19, he's probably better than Tiger was at 19. His technique, I think, is better."

McIlroy also started to make his mark on the US PGA circuit and in May 2010 he recorded his first win on US soil by firing a final-round course record of 62 to take the Quail Hollow Championship.

But it was at the majors that he needed to shine most and with Tiger Woods hobbled by injuries and a sex scandal, the sport was badly in need of a new superstar.

McIlroy looked the part but at 21 he was barely out of the apprentice stage and he made headlines for collapses while leading at the 2010 British Open at St Andrews and at this year's Masters.

In the latter case, he led by four strokes entering the final round and by one with just nine holes to go but a hooked drive on the 10th triggered an alarming meltdown as he came in with an 80.

Rather then brood on that, McIlroy took advice and turned up at Congressional determined to play his style of golf and have no second thoughts clogging his decision-making.

The result has been spectacular for all to see and, injuries and personal motivation allowing, he looks set to be a factor at the top for the next quarter of a century.

Ireland's Padraig Harrington, for one, likes McIlroy's chances of being the one, instead of Woods, to pass the majors-record mark of 18 held by Jack Nicklaus.

"If you?re going to talk about someone challenging Jack?s record, he's your man," Harrington said. "When you are winning majors at 22, with his talent, and he?s got 20-something more years to play majors, and another 100 majors in him, I would give him a great chance to catch Jack."

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