The breakfast tables of Louisville and beyond hummed with talk of Rory McIlroy. There is only one conversation in golf. The climb off the deck, the punches thrown in the championship rounds, the wrestling of the trophy from the hands of rivals who thought he was done. When that final putt dropped in the half light at Valhalla the deification of McIlroy was complete.
In the clamour to acclaim him the game revealed how dependent it has become on the 25-year-old Ulsterman. Valhalla, the final resting place in Norse mythology of the noble dead, could not have been a more apposite setting for the coronation of McIlroy, and the consequent burial of the era of Tiger Woods.
Woods and the aura he once engendered were symbolically sent to their final resting place in a long boat, along with the sword he once flourished with such deadly certainty. In the shape of the Wanamaker Trophy and the Claret Jug, won within a month of each other, McIlroy goes forth brandishing the freshly minted spoils of the epoch’s alpha warrior.
He demonstrated in the manner of his latest conquest the attributes required of leading men, smoking the challenge of the bull males in the field. The eagerness with which the massed ranks of PGA officialdom, the patrician wing of American golf’s ruling class, assembled behind the 18th green to receive their new champion told of the significance of the fist-pumping icon detonating an explosion of interest around the world.
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If there is one thing America loves more than a winner, it is a triumph-over-tragedy champion in the theatrical sense. Over a stretch of holes that define the challenge in major golf, the back nine on championship Sunday, McIlroy reclaimed what appeared lost in the classic tradition of ancient Greek theatre that immersed its princes in blood and thunder.
In this he conformed to a template set three years ago with that epic loss at Augusta, where he blew a four-shot lead on the final day of the Masters, to the redemptive triumph two months later at Congressional, where he wiped the US Open field to win by eight shots. McIlroy was on the golfing board and the most powerful constituency in golf, the broadcasters and stakeholders in America, were on to him.
The £75 million, five-year deal to become the new face of Nike, was confirmation that McIlroy was the figure around whom the big messaging would revolve. It looked to be a burden too great in the first year of the association as McIlroy came to terms with the demands of leadership on and off the course. Events appeared to be controlling him and not the reverse.
He worked it out in the end. He understood that to be “the man”, the boy within had to go. He made radical revisions to his professional and personal life ditching first his management team and then his fiancée. McIlroy Inc was the result and the golfer you see now is a different specimen. That is not to say there is no scope for fringe diversions and maybe even romance, only that those elements are peripheral considerations and compartmentalised around the core interest of golf.
This attitude upgrade is as obvious as the restyled kit he wears, and manifests itself in a bold stride and square-jawed disposition. The collapsing body language has gone. McIlroy looks a player, feels a player, and projects the aura of a player. And critically he is at ease in the role of golf’s big beast and all that comes with it, including the impact it has on others.
When the contest was molten on Sunday, he sensed an aura in play. “It felt like it. Rickie made a bogey at 14 and again at 16. Phil made a bogey at 16. I’m not saying that my name on the leaderboard affected them but it has to do something, the way I played the last few weeks. Having my name on the leaderboard maybe can affect the guys.”
The McIlroy gravitas has obvious consequences for the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles next month, where he is ready to flex his growing muscularity. “It’s not just how the Americans view me but how I’m viewed by my own team. It’s going to be my third Ryder Cup, I’m not one of the most experienced guys but I’m going have to be some sort of leader, be a talisman and drive us forward. I’m realising that I have to accept that responsibility.
“I’m comfortable with that. The first couple of Ryder Cups I maybe felt a little out of place, not able to put my hand up and offer my opinion. ‘Who am I? I’m only a rookie’. Now I’ve experienced a couple and I’m in a place in the game that warrants me leading the team.”
McIlroy is already a short-priced favourite for the Masters in April, where the game’s shifting power dynamic next plays out in a major. The narrative growing around the Rory slam and the claiming of the only major he has yet to win runs four square into the Woods pursuit of that 15th major championship at the place where it all began 17 years ago.
Hyperbole demands that McIlroy offers incremental bulletins on his own place in history. Four majors at 25 needs no selling to a game desperate for someone to fill the Tiger void. He has already drawn alongside Ernie Els. Phil Mickelson and Seve Ballesteros are next and then the most successful European on the modern era Sir Nick Faldo. Roll all that up in a ball and watch it gather pace as the Masters comes round.
At least he has his head on the right way. “I think I’ve got to take it one small step at a time. The two next realistic goals are the career Grand Slam, and trying to become the most successful European player ever. Nick Faldo has six. Seve has five. If I can do that, then I can move on and set different goals.”
Five things that make Rory the main man
Rory McIlroy has acquired a game face. The saggy body language has gone, replaced by an aura of invincibility. If the putt drops or it doesn’t, the messaging is the same. I’m coming to get you.
He is every bit the gym bunny Tiger was at his peak. McIlroy claims to have packed on 3kg of muscle this summer. The cherubic youth has morphed into a golfing Terminator.
He has the same coach he had at seven years old. The technical stuff was done between the ages of 15 and 20. There won’t be any major overhauls to the best swing in golf.
McIlroy has taken control of his own affairs. He is surrounded by a small cabal of trusted advisers and family members. He knows any business done is in his best interest.
He is young, free and single. This means he can dedicate his time to golf. The game has his full focus. The win column says it’s working.Reuse content