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By Frank Worrall
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2014 Frank Worrall
All rights reserved.
SIMPLY THE BEST
He would not fail this time. No way. He would not choke; he would not blow it.
Rory McIlroy scratched his forehead underneath his favourite golfing cap, surveyed the green at Congressional, contemplated the day in front of him, smiled at the expectant crowd of fans and press corps from around the world, then teed up for the round that would change his life. Forever.
It was his day of destiny: the final round of the US Open in Bethesda, Maryland. A day and a round that would propel him to world superstardom and prove that he had the makings of the greatest golfer of all time. A day and a round that would leave even the legendary Tiger Woods purring about his talents and potential – and conceding well, yes, the boy from Ulster was a better player than he had been at that age.
A day and a round that would see the Northern Irish wonder-boy golfer Rory McIlroy finally come of age – at the tender age of just 22.
But no, it hadn't all come together out of pure chance, out of random luck. After his meltdown in The Masters at Augusta two months earlier, Rory had taken vital, valuable time out to reassess his game. He had attempted to work out exactly why he had blown up when winning seemed the easier option. Many analysts would voice their fears that the then 21-year-old would never recover from the setback – that he would be forever traumatised by the experience and would find it hard to overcome what they termed 'the inevitable emotional and mental' hurdles. That he would never now go on to win a Major.
Of course, they didn't know the boy; they had confused him with other golfers who had 'bottled it' and afterwards never gone on to triumph in one of the sport's four marquee events. Some mentioned Colin Montgomerie as an example, claiming Rory would go the way of the brilliantly talented, if emotionally brittle Scotsman. To his credit, Monty himself swiftly dismissed the comparison. The Scot, who by then had won 31 tournaments on the European Tour since turning professional in 1987, said he believed Rory would actually learn from the nightmare in Georgia to emerge a stronger, better golfer.
Monty, who never finished higher than second in a Major, observed: 'He's a very young lad and I think he can only learn from this experience. The way he hits the golf ball is second to none. He was playing the best tee to green. Unfortunately the putter let him down from the first hole onwards and it is amazing how small the holes get at Augusta on a Sunday.
'He was probably just trying too hard, trying to achieve what is almost unachievable at that age. He will be back. He has to look at it as a very positive step. With nine holes to go, he was still one ahead at The Masters and that is a very positive thought to take.'
Indeed it was – and the canny Scot also made the very good point that on the day Rory had come up against an opponent at his absolute peak in Charl Schwartzel, as testified by his four birdies on those final four holes at Augusta. Monty astutely observed that putting was of the essence in The Masters and said of the South African: 'I've played with him many times as a European Tour player and was always very impressed with him. He was the best putter of the week and we know at The Masters it is mainly all to do with that.
'His was a name that many Americans had not known and many outside of South Africa and Europe had not heard of. They have now, and that will give him confidence to go forward.'
Despite this, the doom merchants were out in force. In the press, the Mail's brilliant golf writer Derek Lawrenson expressed the fear that many shared when, after Rory's collapse at Augusta, he wrote: 'In the entire history of major championship golf we've rarely witnessed anything like this. We've seen any number of players choke, we've witnessed plenty more simply not having the skills to cope with the suffocating demands of a Sunday afternoon, but has a man in a position to win ever suffered three holes to match those that befell poor Rory McIlroy in the final round of The Masters on Sunday? Amen Corner they call it, and everyone had better say a prayer for the young Northern Irishman after this disintegration.'
In the Daily Telegraph, Oliver Brown continued the theme of Rory needing divine intervention for future success. He opined: 'When Rory McIlroy pitched his ball into Rae's Creek at the 13th he looked fleetingly on the point of tears. No words of consolation, no platitudes that he would be stronger for the sapping and brutal pressure of Masters Sunday could have filtered through to the 21-year-old last night. McIlroy's hideous unravelling, shedding seven strokes in 12 holes when he must have been mentally measuring himself up for the Green Jacket, was not merely Greg Norman-esque. It was the most spectacular – and surely the most affecting – Augusta implosion anyone could remember. As McIlroy crashed and burned at the turn, the patrons thronged around "Amen Corner" were tempted to whisper a prayer for him.'
But Richard Williams of the Guardian saw the light through the darkness at Augusta – suggesting Rory might benefit from the collapse to return stronger because he had youth on his side: 'McIlroy did not fade out of the contest. He crashed out of it, brakes gone and tyres screeching, in a welter of debris. Only his youth will help insulate him from the direst consequences of such a terrible, terrifying failure; an older man might never recover. And at least it was relatively quick. Greg Norman's tortured collapse against Nick Faldo in 1996 lasted most of the day.'
CNN's Ben Wyatt also had positive input for Rory, suggesting he might learn from the efforts of Phil Mickelson, if he needed some inspiration: 'There is inspiration close at hand if Rory needs a pick-me-up. Phil Mickelson had been dubbed "the greatest player never to win a Major", having finished second or third between 1999 and 2003. He seemed destined to be an eternal bridesmaid. But "Lefty" clung to a tiny, private thought; a ray of light within him that said he could one day win. And in 2004 he did, at the Augusta Masters; a victory which proved the first of three Masters' triumphs over the next six years. McIlroy can bounce back if he follows the lead set by Mr Mickelson.'
Two months later, at Congressional, Rory would prove the likes of Wyatt, Williams and Montgomerie correct – and quieten the doubters – in securing that wonderful first Major at the US Open. And he would admit that, yes, he had learned from The Masters and the lesson, though painful, was part of the reason why he had triumphed in Bethesda. After his dramatic win, he said: 'Every cloud has a silver lining. What happened at Augusta was a great thing for me in terms of support. It's just been incredible the way people cheered for me the whole week – it feels like a home match. To have that when you come over here and feel like you're one of their own is going to be important in the next few years.
'I felt like I got over The Masters pretty quickly – I kept telling you guys that, and I don't know if you believed me or not. Nice to prove some people wrong! To be able to finish it off the way I did just tells me that I learned from it and I've moved on. I can always call myself a major champion but now I've got this, I can concentrate on getting some more.'
So, how exactly did he turn it around – from the anguish of Augusta to the unbridled delight of Bethesda – in just two short months to become the youngest European to win a Major in 139 years?
Well, there were two key elements to his remarkable transformation. The first is that the boy is a natural winner. He does not allow himself to become low or depressed if things go wrong; he simply analyses the situation, puts it right and then propels himself forward with a magnificent self-belief that oozes from every pore of his body. This is no moper or sulker, he moves on; the past is history and all that matters is the present and the future, win or lose.
Rory is much of the opinion that you are only as good (or bad) as your last game of golf, so what's the point in getting hung up on days of self-doubt and self-analysis? Sure, a responsible attempt to see why things didn't work out and to look at how to put them right is part and parcel of any top sportsman's make-up but if you allow losses to demoralise and haunt you then you risk their spectre impinging on your next outing on the green – as Colin Montgomerie himself might well point out to be the case.
For Rory, the aim was to get it right next time. As he himself put it, it would be 'nice to prove some people wrong' and to make his critics eat their words. Even in the immediate aftermath of that crushing setback in Augusta, he admitted he would not, nay could not, afford to dwell too much on his collapse when he spoke to the press corps on the final day: 'It will be pretty tough for me for the next few days, but I will get over it – I will be fine. There are a lot worse things that can happen in your life. Shooting a bad score in the last round of a golf tournament is nothing in comparison to what other people go through.
'It is a very disappointing day, obviously, but hopefully I'll learn from it and come back a little stronger. It was my first experience of being in the lead going into the last day of a Major, and I felt as if I did OK on the front nine. I was still one shot ahead going into the 10th and then things went all pear-shaped after that, but I'll have more chances, I know that.'
He was also boosted by the knowledge that his growing army of fans worldwide were willing him on to win that first Major after Augusta. After Augusta, the golfing Internet boards were awash with 'hard luck, Rory' messages and 'Come on, you can do it!' before and during the US Open.
As far away as Australia, his supporters were sympathising while The Masters setback sunk in. Down Under, one fan, Andrew Herbert, said: 'I woke up this morning hoping to see him putting on the Green Jacket. Looking, not 1st, 2nd, 3rd. I honestly thought, where is he? Heart sank when I heard about the 80. Pint of Guinness, a ruffling of the hair ... Get out there again, mate! A lot of people want you to win, for all the right reasons! Go, Rory!'
And another online well-wisher, PJB, had these words of wisdom for the Northern Irishman: 'While we may be defined by our successes, we are forged in our failures. The Masters is certainly a white-hot crucible and young Mr McIlroy is a ductile piece of metal. He can become the tempered steel that makes the finest blade, he has only to establish his goal and set his mind to it. We saw the elements of a future Masters champion, it is up to him to accomplish according to his aspirations. I wish him well in his experiences.'
And after Bethesda the fans were left in no doubt that a new star had been born. The idea that Rory was actually a golfing saviour was now taking shape: that here, after the dismal spectacle of Tiger Woods' very public demise, was a young man who could take the game forward and indeed open it up to a whole new fan base and encourage people to take it up worldwide.
Golf writer Ray Sanchez suggested as much when he said, 'Do we finally have a new golf superstar in Rory McIlroy? Heaven knows, the sport needs one. Heck, every sport needs one – someone we can root for, look up to, try to follow his or her example. Ever since Tiger Woods went into a tailspin, we've had a long list of faceless champions on the PGA Tour. Rory McIlroy, who's from Northern Ireland, is only 22 years old and it's too early to tell if he's our latest golfer in shining armour. He won the 2011 US Open with a record 16-under-par score last weekend. But one Major does not a superstar make.
'Still, he's young, he's fresh, he can hit the ball a mile – and oh, how he can putt. It was sheer pleasure watching him on television make great shot after great shot. And he's nice looking, friendly, accessible and polite. We can hope.'
One British fan, Andrew Hirst, suggested Rory's success would indeed bring an inevitable and welcome bonus to the membership of golf clubs in the UK: 'From the very first tee he was free -swinging and unlike the tight fairways and water hazards of Augusta, there was nothing in the way of a successful week. But no one could predict the unshakable form he was in. Dropping three shots in four days on one of America's toughest courses proved his class at this level. The new era has begun and it's exciting stuff. After the carnage of Tiger Woods' career left the game in the doldrums we can now move on with a new prince. In recent years, golf memberships have been dwindling and the game lost its credibility for upstanding behaviour and sportsmanship. When the dust settles from this astounding victory it will be the local pro beaming a boyish grin, ready to take the money of a fresh breed of golfer, seeking to emulate their new hero.'
Another also pointed out that the win would boost enthusiasm for golf as a sport, as well as interest in The Open at Kent in July: 'I can't wait for The Open Championship. There's no underestimating the significance of this victory for Rory and the way in which he totally dominated the field. I just hope that The Open is a true reflection of the type of golf that we see in Open Championships. We need a bit of wind to blow across the links and then the real meaning of shot shaping and different types of shots will come to the fore. It would be really symbolic if Rory was to win The Open in testing conditions because no doubt that would reflect the conditions he would have been brought up on in his part of the world. I love watching the best players in the world having to "think" their way around an Open Championship, playing shots that American courses just don't cater for. Punched long irons, little bump and runs, hitting under the wind – it's what golf is all about.'
But for now, that would have to wait. First, Rory wanted to savour the win at Bethesda and was happy to watch reruns of his triumph and talk to the press about how this had been achieved. He admitted the main thing he had put right after Augusta was his putting. It hadn't required any genius to work that one out – Rory simply shuddered as he recalled his putting nightmare that cost him so dearly in the final round. In particular, he conceded that four-putt double bogey on the 12th would give him a few nightmares for some time to come!
Typical of his straight thinking and positive attitude, he hadn't gone into days of intense analysis and angst over it, though. No, instead he and his father Gerry simply decided to seek out the opinion of a man they trusted implicitly. They asked Dave Stockton, considered one of the best putters of all-time, to help out. The American considered it a privilege and spent a couple of sessions with Rory at the PGA Tour event in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the start of May.
It took Stockton, a former double Major winner and victorious US Ryder Cup captain, next to no time to pinpoint the flaws that were holding back the golfing prodigy. The Californian would later reveal: 'Basically I met with Rory, watched him putting and it took about 10 minutes to fix. I told him, "You're a great ball player and your putting is great." We just needed to work on the mental side of things; it was just a case of getting him into a rhythm. Rory plays through instinct and feel, and that's what's great about him.
'He just needed to line up the ball, look at the hole and the positioning of his feet, and follow through on the putt and keep the back of his left hand going towards the target. His mechanics were flawless but he had to stop concentrating on technique and play what was in front of him.'
By the end of May, the pair met again at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, where Stockton witnessed first hand the improvement in Rory's putting skills. 'When I went to see him at Wentworth, he had already improved and we just brushed up on his putting and chipping,' he said. 'He's a great kid. He's easy to teach, he really is. When I met him he was just 21 years old and he was more like a 35-year-old. If you show him something and he buys into it, he can just do it straightaway.'
There was another element to Stockton's mentoring, too – he knew Congressional well. Indeed, 35 years earlier he had won the 1976 PGA Tournament there. It meant he could pass on tips on how to cope at the course before the event began.
The legendary Jack Nicklaus, too, had a few words of advice for the youngster, telling him to 'put pressure on himself to win.'
Rory would reveal that he had also been inspired by a pre-Congressional trip to Haiti: the young man had gone there in his official capacity as UNICEF's Ireland Ambassador. This journey to the ravaged Caribbean island was his first overseas visit and he was to admit that it had opened his eyes and made him realise that sport was not the be-all and end-all of life. Haiti was still suffering the effects of the earthquake that hit close to the capital, Port-au-Prince, in January 2010.
Excerpted from Rory McIlroy by Frank Worrall. Copyright © 2014 Frank Worrall. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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