McIlroy whips up a desert storm

With Tiger and Mickleson absent, the Ulsterman is the talk of the Tucson matchplay

One of Geoff Ogilvy's more thankless duties as defending champion of the WGC World Match Play Championship has been to promote an event in serious danger of suffering under-exposure in the Arizona desert. Why come along when there's no Tiger Woods to watch? Simple, asserts the shrewd Australian. Come along and watch the next Tiger Woods.

"In 20 years' time, when Rory's won 10 majors, you can tell your friends, 'Hey, I saw Rory play when he was 20 years old in Tucson'," says Ogilvy.

A brave attempt, yet as it happens the locals will not require much hyping to turn up to cheer McIlroy in his first-round match against Kevin Na this morning. They fell in love with the Belfast boy when he made his professional debut in America here last year and since that run to the quarter-finals the clamour to have him back has grown. That this happens to be McIlroy's first tournament as a fully paid-up PGA Tour member has only made his status as the stand-in poster boy that bit more inevitable. He is seeded No 5. But in so many other respects, he is No 1.

If McIlroy required any further reminders of how much his life has changed in the last 12 months then it was provided at Tucson airport on Sunday night. In 2009, he had walked through the same terminal unnoticed and unknown (to the ever-insular American sport fan, anyway). "This time around," reported his manager, Chubby Chandler, yesterday, "everybody recognised him. This place has really taken him to their heart. It was mental here last year and it carried on the next week in the Honda. It was almost pop-starish."

In all that hoopla, the suspicion was that Team McIlroy would not be able to resist the lure of the greenback and would soon go full-time in Stateside. It hasn't happened that way, despite McIlroy taking up the offer of PGA Tour membership. "Rory doesn't want a base over here," revealed Chandler. "He still wants to grow up at home. Two-week stints over here are enough for him."

There is another reason, however, why his transatlantic trips will continue to be limited. In the last few weeks, a worrying story has emerged of a McIlroy back problem, one that was predictably quick to be given "career-threatening" billing. After two close finishes in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, McIlroy was flown back to his home city to undergo a scan. As Chandler now explains, the trip was not as ominous as it sounded.

"Rory had his first scan three years ago and since then he's been having them every six months," he said. "That's why we know we're on top of it. In a way it's a good thing he knows about this now and that he has been told he would have a big problem if he didn't do something about it. He can manage it."

To this end, McIlroy has a physiotherapist travelling with him; giving an hour of treatment before he goes out and an hour afterwards. He will not play more than three tournaments in a row, two if he can help it. It has forced McIlroy to be almost savagely single-minded when drawing up his schedule. For the second year running he has turned down Arnold Palmer's offer of a place in the Bay Hill Invitational. In these Tigerless times everybody wants a piece of McIlroy – and the understandable fear is that if he isn't careful there will not be enough pieces to go around.

The stretched ligaments in his back have been linked to the radical hip movement McIlroy makes in his swing. Yet he is not about to alter the motion which has taken him into the world's top 10 in record time. "I can't change," he told a press conference here on Monday. "I've swung this way since I was two. This is actually fine compared to what it used to be. I remember in the summer before the [2007] Walker Cup it was really bad. It comes and goes. If I play a couple of weeks in a row it's fine. Three and I can feel it a little bit. The fourth week it starts to hurt. In the motion of swinging a club it's fine, but it's like picking the ball out of the hole and teeing the ball up and stuff. I just have to think about what way I have to do it, but it's not painful. It's like a niggle."

There is another niggle consuming McIlroy at the moment and one that could easily be alleviated at the Dove Mountain course in a format which plainly suits his wonderfully unreconstructed, gung-ho spirit. Many might be of the opinion that if a 20-year-old should really not have a back problem then he should also really not have a mind doctor. Yet as McIlroy surveys a results sheet which is marked as much by its startling consistency (10 top-seven placings in his last 12 events) as it is by its paucity of professional victories (one) he is on the brink of resorting to a route he had, in his own words, "pooh-poohed in the past".

"Yeah, I've talked to Chubby about it and it couldn't hurt," admitted McIlroy, whose fallibility over the short putts continues to cost him dear. "Most guys do not see mental coaches when they're playing poorly. But I want to be able to turn these top fives and top threes into wins. Maybe, that can take me on to the next stage."

Well as stages go, this one happens to straight from Sergio Leone's Wild West dreams. The old Spaghetti Westerns always favoured the kid in a shootout and if McIlroy can emerge here on Sunday evening as the last man standing his legend will know no bounds.

"Rory was hailed as the next big star in Europe last year and is now being hailed as the next big star in the States this year," said Ireland's Padraig Harrington. "I don't think it's going to put any extra pressure on Rory. It's what he wants. In fact he's loving it. His attitude is terrific; he really loves playing golf and has the same enthusiasm for it that he had as a boy."

Duelling in the desert: Brit pack in Tucson

Lee Westwood (2)

Stalwart of six Ryder Cups is the second seed after Phil Mickelson's withdrawal. Englishman is Europe's No 1 after winning inaugural "Race to Dubai" last year.

Paul Casey (6)

Englishman who won old World Matchplay at Wentworth in comprehensive fashion. Won twice on US Tour last season before a rib injury, which the world No 7 has nearly fully recovered from.

Ian Poulter (9)

Known first for his colourful outfits, but since starring as a captain's pick in the 2008 Ryder Cup, his game is staring to justify the hype.

WGC World Matchplay: Today's tee times

Selected first-round matches

2.45pm L Donald (Eng) v G McDowell (N Irl)

3.14 I Poulter (Eng) v J Leonard (US)

3.52 R McIlroy (N Irl) v K Na (US)

4.01 M A Jimenez (Sp) v O Wilson (Eng)

4.11 P Casey (Eng) v S Ames (Can)

4.30 P Harrington (Irl) v J M Singh (Ind)

5.27 S O'Hair (US) v S Dyson (Eng)

5.55 R Fisher (Eng) v T Jaidee (Thai)

7.21 L Westwood (Eng) v C Wood (Eng)

Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments