The Future Arrives on McIlroy’s Shoulders

(published June 20, 2011)

Well now, that didn’t take long, did it?

Call off the search party.  The hunt for golf’s Next Big Thing is over.

Rory McIlroy’s victory lap around Congressional Country Club on Sunday was accomplished without stress, without strain, and without fear.  Birdies on the first and fourth holes extended his lead from eight strokes to ten, brought his score to an unthinkable sixteen under par, and banished thoughts of his fourth-round meltdown in April’s Masters.

A six-iron to ten inches on the tenth hole meant another birdie.  Bogeys on 12 and 17, a birdie on 16 – the afternoon packed all the drama of the recent royal wedding. (“Will she say ‘I do’?  Are you sure?”)

The effortless power of his beautiful swing – always in rhythm, always in balance – joined with the accuracy of his ball-striking to present a clinic in how to play the U.S. Open.  He played without delay, at his usual blessedly brisk pace.

The Previous Big Thing was so preternaturally confident, so certain of his championship status at an early age, that we forgot the normal course of events: pro golfers crawl before they walk, walk before they run, run before they sprint to gold medals.

Ordinary humans have to learn how to win major championships.  Not how to hit the shots, but how to manage the surge of emotions, keep focus, slow the heart rate, stay calm in the face of adversity.

McIlroy might still have the last of those ahead of him, because adversity was a stranger to him this week from first shot to last.

His triumph did not come out of nowhere.  Consider McIlroy’s performance in the last three majors:

At the Masters, he led by four after three rounds, and still held the lead after a shaky first nine holes before unraveling and fading to a tie for fifteenth.

At the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, while the world focused on whether Dustin Johnson was in a bunker or not on the 72nd hole, McIlroy very quietly finished in a tie for third, one stroke out of the playoff between Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson.

At the British Open on the Old Course in St. Andrews, he began with a 63, tying the lowest round ever recorded in a major; he blew up to an 80 in vicious wind and rain in the second round, then rallied with 69-68 the last two days to finish tied for third.

Major by major, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland gained experience, learned, and moved a step closer to claiming victory.

“The more I put myself in this position, the more and more comfortable I’m becoming,” McIlroy said after Saturday’s round.  “At Augusta, it was all a little bit new to me, going into the final round with a lead.  I didn’t know whether to be defensive, aggressive, go for it, not go for it, but now I know what I need to do.”

He certainly showed as much on Sunday.  He played irons off several tees rather than court trouble with driver or even three-wood.  When he left his birdie efforts on 2 and 5 well short, he confidently drilled the par putts into the center of the cup.  On 18, he left his second shot just short of the green, putted the 70-footer just over the ridge to a foot below the hole, and stroked the par putt home.  The final score was sixteen under, 268, four shots better than the previous Open record.

The conditions were not those of a typical U.S. Open.  Exceptionally hot weather a week ago kept the rough from growing to its usual lushness.  Rain every day made the greens soft and unusually receptive, and the holes were placed on the greens to allow for potential heroics.  Twenty players finished under par, as many as in the last twelve U.S. Opens combined.

To the USGA’s credit, the blazered set took no unnatural actions to toughen the course during the week in the interest of “protecting par” – a concept that seems not to be in Executive Director Mike Davis’s philosophical vocabulary.  The game is played in nature, and sometimes nature giveth rather than taketh away.  The benign conditions made it possible for a player to shoot in the 260s – but only one came within seven strokes of doing so.  Congressional may have been rendered toothless, but it identified a worthy champion.

The depth of the world’s talent in golf is so great that it is unlikely any one player will ever dominate again the way we’ve seen in the recent past.  Of course, the same thing was true fourteen years ago, when a transcendent young player declared his greatness by winning his first major by twelve strokes.

Time will tell if McIlroy is as good as he seems, on and off the course.  He appears genuinely grateful for the efforts of those around him.  His visit to Haiti last week suggests an awareness of the world beyond the gallery ropes.  There are silk-screened accents on his shoulder, not a chip.

The Next Great Golfer is here.  Let’s enjoy him while he’s still young enough to appreciate that we care.





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