Marvellous McIlroy tops list of sport's most wanted

If he can cope with new levels of fame and expectation, the sky is the limit for this brilliant 22-year-old
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The Independent Online

What next for Rory McIlroy? It is the question everybody wants to know the answer to. And perhaps it says so much about the extraordinary impact the young Ulsterman made with his extraordinary US Open victory that golf's biggest question mark no longer follows the name "Tiger Woods".

The immediate response to the breathless query is that Ant and Dec are next for Rory McIlroy. Today the 22-year-old will join the chirpy Geordie duo in a London studio to record an episode of Red or Black?, Simon Cowell's new game show. Ant and Dec should feel honoured. McIlroy declined the opportunity to go on Letterman last night, the most-watched chat show in America. That also says plenty about sport's newest phenomenon.

"Red or Black" may well describe the colours of McIlroy's eyes. Yesterday, after a hefty, sleepless night of celebration in the wake of his eight-shot triumph, McIlroy boarded a 6.15am flight from Washington to Cape Cod to play at a sponsor's day. After Ant and Dec he will be guest of honour at the golf club in Holywood and the hero's homecoming party is sure to be boisterous.

Darren Clarke, one of McIlroy's mentors, was not about to miss it – he has pulled out of this week's European Tour event in Munich. Clarke sent his friend, and International Sports Management stablemate, a text before he teed off on Sunday. "Show them how good you are," it read. Four hours later, McIlroy had done exactly that, taking the fewest number of shots in 115 years of the US Open, and then his mobile beeped again. This time it was Rafael Nadal, the world No 1 tennis player, passing on his congratulations.

It is that sort of living legend with whom McIlroy will be keeping company from now on as he attempts to justify all the grand pronouncements. Of him filling the void left by Woods' struggles and, looking forward, of him challenging Jack Nicklaus on the major charts. While it might be a tad premature to predict 19 majors from a player who has one and just two other titles in his locker after more than 100 events as a pro, as McIlroy said "the comparisons are natural".

For now he can simply try to survive the next fortnight of attention – he has yet more sponsorship commitments to fulfil and next week will attend Wimbledon – and then travel down to Sandwich to begin his Open preparations. McIlroy will withdraw from next week's French Open to avoid fatigue and will spend a few days reconnaissance on the Kent links before the crowds show up. "He might not turn up then until Tuesday night," said his manager, Chubby Chandler (the ISM supremo, who incidentally has "won" three of the last four majors).

That will become the way for McIlroy as he deals with the orbiting levels of fame. It was one of the pieces of advice Nicklaus imparted in the chat they had at the Memorial tournament in Ohio last month. The meeting was clearly influential for anyone who witnessed the "chalk and cheese" transformation between McIlroy in that final-round 80 of the Masters and 70 days later at Congressional. "He worked out what he did wrong at Augusta," said his closest handler, Stuart Cage. "He was incredibly calm all week."

It will be a genuinely scary proposition if McIlroy can recreate this mix of maturity and metronomic magnificence on a regular basis. Despite a winning ratio which remains bafflingly low, there is no reason why this turbo-boost to his confidence will not soar him to a new level. Certainly, McIlroy has proved himself a major animal, having finished in the top three in three of the last four majors and having held a one-shot lead with nine holes to go in the other. Consider that he has led for 135 of the 144 major holes completed this year and you will understand the magnitude of his performances. What odds Royal St George's witnessing the second instalment of the "Roryslam"?

Typically, the bookies are attempting to cash in on the hype, one pricing him up at an absurd 3-1. McIlroy is actually one of the minority on the range who likes Sandwich. If his driving is anywhere near as accurate as it was in Washington and, more to the point, if he enjoys another career putting week, then his chance does not really need stating. What a prospect it would be if Woods somehow resurrected his form to provide a challenge.

But the 35-year-old is wearing an immobilising boot to protect an injured Achilles and the fears grow that he will miss his second major in succession. Nobody wants that, least of all McIlroy. "I've watched Tiger over the last 15 years and growing up, I always had putts to beat Tiger in the Masters or US Open," he said. "So it would be great to go down the stretch with him because I've never really had that experience. I hope he can get healthy and can get back playing good golf, because golf is a better place with him playing well."

It certainly is, especially when the television contracts are up for renewal. It used to be so simple for Tim Finchem, the chief executive of the US Tour. He would go into negotiations – as he must do soon – and say, "We've got Tiger, this is how much we want." But now not only is Tiger derailed, but the US Tour doesn't have McIlroy.

The fanaticism with which America has taken to him in this tale of redemption has almost defied belief and Finchem will pull out all the stops to entice him to play more in the States. Expect the strict membership rules to be changed to accommodate him, expect the once unbudgeable to bend over backwards. For the first time in history America has gone without a winner in five majors, meaning the genial, curly-mopped Irishman is the only show in town. But Finchem and his country may well be left disappointed, if not downright perplexed.

McIlroy's indifference to appearing on Letterman portrays his indifference to America, and although he was deeply touched by the reception at Congressional he wants to remain an international player, based in the comfort zone of his hometown. He has had a brief taste of the "US Tour treadmill" and did not enjoy the experience.

The US Tour already knows this. Chandler has informed them that both McIlroy and Lee Westwood– who, many overlooked, racked up his fifth top three in seven majors – will once again be absent from the Players Championship, the Tour's flagship event, next year. "Their schedules will be similar next year to this," said Chandler. "Why? Because they have worked. So they will not be playing the TPC again next year." But what about the American exposure, what about all those dollars? "We don't work only around money," said Chandler. "They make enough of that."

McIlroy will make more, however, and the predictions of his money haul are as inevitably as excitable as those of his major haul. "Marketing specialists" are anticipating him becoming sport's first billion-pound man; all too soon Woods will be a comparative pauper.

Unrealistic? Perhaps, although in the continuing glare of his record-breaking breakthrough it is all too easy to get carried away. Europe's youngest major winner in 139 years produced Europe's greatest ever golfing performance and has them all talking, all forecasting, all bartering. Everyone wants a piece of the McIlroy magic.

McIlroy: Even better and younger than Woods in 2000

6 McIlroy's six-shot lead at halfway was joint with Woods' 36-hole advantage in 2000 as the largest of all time.

8 McIlroy's winning margin ahead of Jason Day. Woods, however, won by 15 shots at Pebble Beach in 2000.

-16 The best score relative to par in the US Open's history. Tiger Woods' 12 under had been the best.

-17 The lowest score relative to par ever achieved at the US Open. Tiger's 12 under had been the record.

22 At the age of 22, McIlroy was the youngest US Open champion since 1911. Woods was 24 in 2000.

131 The best score after 36 holes in the US Open's history. Woods in 2000 was on 134. The record was 132.

199 The best 54-hole score ever at the US Open. Woods in 2000 was on 205. The record was 200.

268 The lowest final score in US Open history. Woods shared the record, hitting 272 in 2000.

How many majors will Rory win? our experts have their say

James Lawton (chief sports writer)

Based on the last few days, Rory McIlroy is a champion of champions, someone liberated to the point where he can engulf the records of men like Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods. Unfortunately, life and big-time sport are more complicated, more prone to such intangibles as mood and confidence and emerging challenges. If McIlroy was so serene in the US Open, he was also virtually unchallenged, and it is rarely going to be quite like this. Estimated majors: 7

James Corrigan (golf correspondent)

Rory may not win as many majors as Tiger, but he is playing in a more competitive era and he will come to be regarded as the greatest European player of all. Estimated majors: 8

Paul Mahoney (golf writer)

When Rory McIlroy is done, he will be crowned Europe's finest ever golfer by winning a dozen majors to edge past the combined total won by Nick Faldo (six) and Seve Ballesteros (five). Estimated majors: 12

Andy Farrell (golf writer)

One question mark remains: can he win the tight ones? If he keeps playing like this, he won't need to. Having this week of weeks under his belt can only help with future head-to-heads. Will the ambition last? Johnny Miller won two majors and enjoyed the view from his mountain top. Jack Nicklaus got to the top of his and asked: "Where's the next?" Forget Nicklaus and Tiger Woods for now. Take aim at Harry Vardon's British record of seven. Estimated majors: 7