McIlroy: 'you see his shots and just stand back in amazement'

After his record-breaking win at Quail Hollow, Rory McIlroy celebrates his 21st birthday today with Phil Mickelson in awe, and a $750,000 cheque to bank
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The Independent Online

Before his ever-swelling legion of fans are able to rank Rory McIlroy's 62 among the greatest last rounds ever played they must first establish it as the greatest last round played on that particular Sunday.

This is no easy task, despite the 20-year-old's 10-under spectacular. Because Ryo Ishikawa shot a 58. And that happens to be the lowest round ever compiled on any major tour. By the way, Ishikawa is 18.

Who is to say which was the better? Of course, the western world would claim that McIlroy's stroll to the Quail Hollow Championship established him as the man; while over in the Orient his name was Ryo. And yes, he would have danced on the sand if he had gone in any.

There can be no argument that between them Rory and Ryo turned the golfing world upside down and inside out. Their combined score was 120; their combined age was 38. What did Tom Watson try telling us about golf being an old man's game?

For the moment, the official world rankings give the verdict to young Rory from Belfast. By becoming the youngest champion on the PGA Tour since a certain Tiger Woods in 1996, McIlroy leapt up to ninth. Charlotte boasted one of the strongest fields on the regular calendar and, even though Woods had departed early with his stunning missed cut, there were still the names of the calibre of Phil Mickelson to fend off. "He's got the game of a veteran," said Mickelson, who continues to draw up benchmarks of magnanimity. "That 62 is one of the best rounds I've seen in a long, long time. For him to win here on the PGA Tour just before his 21st birthday sets his career off. Everybody knows how great he is. You see some of the shots and just stand back in amazement."

McIlroy arrived at the Players Championship yesterday not keen on telling his practice partner, Adam Scott, all about his 62 steps to immortality but about a 206-yarder into the breeze on the par-five seventh (his 16th) on Friday. "The most important shot of the year," said McIlroy. "If I don't make eagle there, I would have been practising at Ponte Vedra this weekend." As he stood over his four-iron, McIlroy was three-over and two outside the cut mark. His third MC in a row loomed. "I hit it to six feet," reported McIlroy. "The rest is history."

Certainly his frustration was. McIlory had been so low prior to Charlotte that he had considered taking a break. His back was in bits, as was his mojo, as was his rhythm. What changed? "I got home, took a few days off and said to the mirror, 'Look, there's no point in feeling sorry for yourself. You're not playing great, you need to go and work'." So McIlroy, with his back improving, called a few mates, played Royal County Down on the Thursday, Royal Portrush on the Friday and in the winds which define those brutal links shot a pair of 67s. "Ah, I can still play this game," he told himself. It was just a case of proving it again.

Except, for the first time in 2010, he felt no compelling urge to prove anything. "I had never felt expectation up until this year," he explained. "But then I got in the top 10 and I'm thinking, 'Well, if I'm the seventh best in the world I should be going out and competing every week'. I was trying to get there too soon, pushing and pushing. After the Masters I've just tried to free it all up, relax a little bit and just go out and play."

When Rory does go out and simply plays he is the most arresting sight in the game. The problem has been that when Sunday has come around it's been his free-flowing talent which has ended up being arrested. Even when he won his first and so far, only title, on the European Tour – in Dubai 15 months ago – he flopped over the line. The fear was that McIlroy was a born genius, but not a born winner. Those fears are clearly unfounded. Not even the news from Nagoya distracted him from his purpose.

"I heard what Ryo had done before I went out," said McIlroy. "He shoots 58 to win, I shoot 62 to win. I'm just trying to keep up with him. I played that tournament a few years ago. The greens are so small, they get them so hard. I don't know if he's playing in the Players, but it would be great to see him shoot some rounds like that overseas."

Ishikawa will not be travelling over to Jacksonville and Japanese Tour officials are plainly delighted. "It's fair to say he's rescued our Tour," said the executive director, Andy Yamanaka. "Before he appeared, people were losing interest. Ryo went out in 28 strokes at the Crowns. That's phenomenal. That is one of the toughest golf courses in Japan." Perhaps it is best to measure Ishikawa's 58 by the average that day – a little over 71, one-over par. With 12 birdies and no eagles Ishikawa actually lipped out for a 57. "Yeah, I've putted for a 57," quipped Nick Faldo. "But I was on the 15th green at the time."

Faldo was speaking on the CBS telecast just as Mickelson was walking up to claim outright second. It showed the kid is already primetime in the States and they are unashamedly trying to woo him. After his eight wins in Japan (the first when he was 15) many are saying it's time he switches to the main stage. "Ryo's winning in his homeland so he needs to take it over here and start winning here," said Padraig Harrington. "That's what Rory's just done."

The Japanese do not want to consider the implications. They are relying on the riches of his Beckham-like fame in Asia to prove sufficient. "Ryo's got 19 endorsements and more than 13 TV commercials," said Yamanaka. "We do worry about the future and him going to the US. Imagine what our Tour would become if that happens."

Alas, they will find out soon enough. There can be little doubt Ishikawa will be replicating McIlory and taking up his US card in the very near future. The stakes, in golfing terms, are way too high. The game could be entering another golden age and The Bashful Prince, as he is known, could be at its vanguard. Evidently, it is not just Mickelson coming for Tiger (and if the former wins this week and the latter comes outside the top five, golf will have a new No 1), but Rory and Ryo, too. And these boys don't obey the normal rules of superstardom.

Ishikawa, says Yamanaka, "is perfect in every sense". Apparently, he out-Mickelsons Mickelson in signing autographs and posing for photos. McIlroy, meanwhile, is planning on "having a good time" on his 21st birthday today – "but not too good". Yet surely when Sawgrass is done he will go home and spend the £750,000 prize on a new toy? "I'm building a new range at home at the minute and this will pay for the trees," he said. "Trees don't come cheap."

McIlroy should know. He's just ripped up so many of them. Right across the golfing landscape.

Future of the fairways

Rory McIlroy

Age 21

Height 5ft 9in

Weight 11st

World ranking 9

Turned pro 2007

Wins 2

Best finish in a major 3rd (2009 USPGA)

Ryo Ishikawa

Age 18

Height 5ft 8in

Weight 10st 9lb

World ranking 38

Turned pro 2008

Wins 8

Best finish in a major T56 (2009 USPGA)

McIlroy on his key shots

Second shot, 15th fairway, 202 yards to the hole

"I just hit the nicest little floaty five-iron in there. You know, as soon as I hit it, I turned to J P [Fitzgerald, his caddie] and said, 'I don't even need the sand iron' – I knew it was going to be pretty good. And it was. Within three feet for an eagle. Yeah, it was a big moment."

Second shot, bunker, 16th fairway

"I didn't stand there and watch as I knew it was good. For some reason even when I catch it good out of a fairway bunker it never goes quite as far as it would off a fairway. So I hit a seven-iron and as I hit it, I just walked out of the bunker and was just saying to myself, 'please be right'. It finished within five feet. That was nice."

Third shot, 18th green, 45 feet to the hole

"All I was thinking of was two-putting because if I three-putt, Phil could easily birdie 17 and 18 and it's a play-off. So I was just thinking, get it within three feet, don't put it off the green. I got the pace perfectly. It just dropped in."

McIlroy now lies ninth in the world rankings. His best position was seventh in February.


His total career earnings since his debut in 2006.

His best finish in a major was third at the PGA Championship in Minnesota last year.