Golden Bear teaches Golden Cub secrets to major success

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The Independent Online

If Rory McIlroy fails to win the 111th US Open, Jack Nicklaus is going to kick his backside. That is what Nicklaus threatened to do after McIlroy imploded with a final-round 80 at Augusta in April to throw away the Masters.

Nicklaus is the expert on what it feels like to fail to win a major championship. He finished runner-up 19 times. Fortunately he's also the expert on how to win them: 18 victories is still four ahead of Tiger Woods, who is hobbling around Orlando on crutches.

Nicklaus, now 71 years old, has clearly seen something special in 22-year-old McIlroy and they have struck up a special relationship. The Golden Bear has his Golden Cub. McIlroy could have no finer tutor to guide him though the mental barriers that prevent even great players from grabbing their place in history. Winning that first major is often the eureka moment like Roger Bannister's four-minute mile. If McIlroy can just win one major now, today, chalk him up for at least half a dozen.

Nicklaus first met McIlroy and his father Gerry in the car park of a shopping mall in Palm Beach Gardens, South Florida, during the week of the 2009 Honda Classic. It was only McIlroy's second appearance on the US Tour but he had already made enough noise on the European Tour as a19-year-old to catch Nicklaus' attention. He spotted the McIlroys in a tournament courtesy car and introduced himself. "Hi," he said to Rory. "I thought that was you."

Shortly after that chance meeting, Jack invited Rory to use the secluded practice area at his private Bear's Club. The following year at the Honda Classic, Nicklaus took McIlroy to lunch. It turned out to be a 90-minute crash-course masterclass in the art of how to become a major champion.

"It was an unbelievable experience," McIlroy said revealing that Nicklaus told him you can be at the peak of your game but still be beaten – or simply not get the job done yourself. "He told me that the best he has ever played was in The Open at Turnberry in 1977 and yet Tom Watson won," McIlroy said. He listened as Nicklaus told him another trick is that you don't always have to bust a gut to win, just wait for the others to lose. "I thought that when he got in front, he'd say, 'Right, I'm going to grind these guys down'," McIlroy said. "Actually, he said he just waited for everyone else to make mistakes and admitted that he had a lot more majors handed to him than he went out and won."

They are now regular lunch buddies and have chatted a lot the past two years. McIlroy said their conversations are always about how to win majors rather than just regular tournaments. Nicklaus told him the secret to success was to go to the venue for four days the week before the championship and do all your work. Then arrive on the Tuesday of the tournament week fresh and ready to go. That's what McIlroy has done for this US Open. "He said there's going to be a lot of pressure on you, but you've got to put a lot of pressure on yourself early. That's what he always did. He emphasised so much to me about not making mistakes. That was his big thing."

Since striking up their friendship, McIlroy has played each year at the Memorial, the tournament Nicklaus hosts in Ohio. It was there earlier this month that Nicklaus caught up with McIlroy for the first time since his Masters meltdown.

McIlroy talked about that meeting before the start of this tournament. "He didn't really threaten to beat me up," McIlroy said. "But I think I could take him now; he's a little old," he added laughing. They joked about Augusta but there was a serious message. "He said to me, 'I'm expecting big things from you'," McIlroy said. "It's a nice pressure to have knowing the greatest player ever thinks you're going to do pretty good. He expected to play well. He expected to be in a position to win. And he said, 'I expect you to do the same thing'."

That's just what McIlroy has done at Congressional. All he has to do now is win. That's all.