Rory McIlroy ushered in a new era in golf with his wire-to-wire victory at Royal Liverpool, but don't expect that claiming the third leg of the career Grand Slam will change the 25-year-old globe-trotter, whose perspective on life on and off the course is, in a word, refreshing
OUR OLD preoccupations are suddenly moldy. You know: Will Tiger ever get to 18 majors? Will Phil ever win a U.S. Open? So June. The question of the moment is, Will Rory complete the career Grand Slam before he turns 26? He can do it at next year's Masters.
Onward, onward, onward. That's the siren song of modern life, but Rory McIlroy will not follow it. The Irishman (Northern section!), who won the British Open on Sunday with a Woods-in-his-prime display of power and superb putting on slow greens, is not built for the fast lane. How refreshing. He's fine with slowing things down and enjoying the moment. He crossed the Irish Sea for the Scottish and British opens by ... boat.
Woods, famously restless in his prime, had to own the tournament he was in and the next one too. McIlroy will always be one to pick and choose his spots. Or they will find him. Over the next 20 years there should be more than occasional wins, even if he doesn't putt as brilliantly as he did last week. His main job is to stay supple and strong, so that he may continue to drive for show and dough. He did a full gym workout every day last week, even on Sunday. A page out of Tiger's book.
Everybody digs the long ball, and it's no wonder ticket sales were so good at Royal Liverpool. Rory's familiar accent surely helped. There were dozens of freckled children, some with old-fashioned autograph books, gathered at various strategic outposts, calling politely for Mr. McIlroy. (What casting agency supplies these kids anyway?) It was only 15 or so years ago that Rory was one of them, waiting on Tiger.
Last week McIlroy and his parents, Rosie and Gerry, and some friends stayed in a posh rental house, Chef Paul in the kitchen. (The celebratory Sunday-night dinner was chicken curry and various refreshments out of the claret jug.) Rory drove to the course each day in his black Range Rover. He geared up for work by listening to high-volume dance hits by David Guetta, Avicii and Sigma. Gerry, once a scratch golfer, could handle it. Listening to 50 Cent for several years prepared him for anything. The music is Rory's Red Bull.
McIlroy routinely drove the ball 340 yards on Hoylake's wide, receptive fairways, and one drive measured close to 400. His action is ideal for any tee shot with a long club. His hip turn is explosive (that's the source of his distance), and he catches the ball late in the upswing (that's why his drives are such moonshots). He really didn't have to do anything otherworldly to shoot a six-under-par 66 in the first round and another in the second.
He saved his fireworks for the balmy third round. Aware as he left the 13th green that his four-shot lead had evaporated, he eagled two of his last three holes for a 68 and went to bed up by six. For the week, McIlroy played the 16 par-5s in 12 under par. He shot a workmanlike 71 in the finale, finished 17 under and won by two over Rickie Fowler and Sergio García to become the third-youngest player to have three legs of the career Grand Slam, behind Jack Nicklaus (23) and Woods (24).
Woods finished in 69th place, his worst showing in the 62 majors in which he has made the cut as a professional. He is 38 and has seen more hospital gowns than Dr. Nick, the Club Med School graduate on The Simpsons. It was only last year that Woods won five times. It just seems like a decade ago.
There's an understandable impulse to compare Woods with McIlroy. Two onetime prodigies, both only children, one with monomaniacal zeal, the other with just zeal. Parents loom large for both golfers. Woods wept like a baby when he won at Royal Liverpool in 2006, 11 weeks after his father, Earl, died. At the awards ceremony on Sunday, McIlroy said, "Mum, this one's for you." Rory was beaming, and Rosie was quivering.
THEY'RE LIVING large and loving it, these McIlroys. Which is not to say everything has been a stroll on the beach. In May, McIlroy broke off his engagement with Caroline Wozniacki after the wedding invitations went out. (It was awkward and painful, yes, but what should he have done after he had second thoughts? Marry the tennis star as an act of public relations?) He and a former agent are suing each other. He turned pro at 18, and he's growing up in front of us. People have come and gone out of his professional life. But his core golf group—his father, his caddie, his teacher—has not changed.
Rory is handling the twists of his eventful life well, even if he has lost some of his boyish wonder and charm over the past half decade. In that period he has become a superstar, and he's capable of acting like one, with passing moments of self-absorption and petulance, such as when he walked off the course midway through the second round of the 2013 Honda Classic, citing a toothache. Or when he called a carefully considered rule he inadvertently broke "stupid." But he's open and candid, and the game is better for having McIlroy in it.
He has a welcome sense of perspective. Growing up on a small island has something to do with that, and so has traveling the world since age 11, often without his parents. The bio blurb on his Twitter page reads, "I hit a little white ball around a field sometimes!" The last word (and the exclamation mark) is an apt illustration of McIlroy's attitude. He'll tell you the best news in his family in the past year is that his father has quit smoking.
Rosie worked for years at a 3M factory in Belfast. Her father sold ice cream out of a truck in the city. Gerry worked for decades as a bar manager. His father worked in the Belfast shipyards, on a channel that leads to the Irish Sea. Rory became the "champion golfer of the year," in the grand phrase trotted out at the close of every Open, on a course on the English side of their Irish Sea. Some journey.
It was emotional for McIlroy to hoist the jug that Tony Jacklin of England cradled, that Seve Ballesteros of Spain kissed, that Jean van de Velde of France had part of his name on. Rory thought, I'm back and it feels good. But you can be sure he was well aware of the $1.6 million payday too. The McIlroys like the finer things—in watches, cars, houses, food and wine. They've earned their spoils. They still have dirt in their fingernails. That's a compliment. Ben Hogan died looking for a nail brush.
We will now be tempted to get into the predicting business all over again. How many majors will Rory win? Knock yourself out, folks. McIlroy himself will tell you you're wasting your time. As a kid, Woods got attached to a goal that helped to make him great but came at a cost: win at least 19 majors to eclipse Nicklaus and take his mantle as the greatest golfer ever. Tiger's stuck on 14, and despite the grandeur of that total, he chases his target number with a bum left knee, a surgically repaired back and the burden of the expectations he created. On Sunday night McIlroy declared, once more with feeling, his life ambition: "I just want to be the best golfer I can be." Big difference.
McIlroy will never pitch and chip and putt as well as Woods did in his 1997--2008 prime. And he will never have Woods's sustained intensity. So if you bump into him at the Palm Beach Gardens Mall—he lives a few miles from Woods in South Florida—feel free to ask him if he has seen any good movies lately. (He liked 22 Jump Street.) If you see Woods there, best to leave him alone.
In that vein, don't be surprised if McIlroy is half-in, half-out for the rest of 2014. Don't expect him to get all worked up by the Ryder Cup in the cool, breezy weather of Scotland in late September. Not his thing, and not his weather. Augusta in April is a different matter. He'll be hoping for showers at night. Give him four days of wide, soft fairways and light wind—the conditions at Hoylake and at his other two major wins—and there's a decent chance he'll give you that big-toothed smile on Sunday night.
Between now and then he'll be playing on a continent near you. It's hard to think of a golfer more global than McIlroy is today. He has won significant events in America (as he calls his adopted country), continental Europe, Dubai, Hong Kong, Australia—and England. If the modern game has a Gary Player, noted globe-trotter, it's McIlroy. Like Player, McIlroy likes to travel and compete. He also likes to hang out in your better hotel lounges. He doesn't mind if you look at him. He accepts that he's leading a public life.
You maybe heard that Gerry and some mates made outlandish bets in 2004 and '05, getting up to 500-to-1 odds that Rory would win the British Open before he turned 26. On the day after he won the Open at 25, you could get 10-to-1 on McIlroy's winning the 2015 Masters, anywhere in the world online. The next next thing is now.
Somebody better tell the kid.
McIlroy is fine with slowing things down and enjoying the moment. He crossed the Irish Sea for the Scottish and British opens ... by boat.
Photograph by Thomas Lovelock For Sports Illustrated
POWER PLAY McIlroy, who attacked Royal Liverpool with majestic tee shots, was particularly impressive on the par-5s, which he played in 12 under.
Photograph by Thomas Lovelock For Sports Illustrated
MOTHER'S DAY McIlroy's parents have always been a big part of his life, so it was special for him to share the victory with Rosie.