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Peers Fitting McIlroy for Golf's Biggest Shoes

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates–The Abu Dhabi Championship was barely under way when an Irish spectator following the 20-year-old Rory McIlroy was overheard complaining to his companion. The nature of his complaint was that the two of them had been misled.

“We’ve heard a lot about Rory being a brilliant young talent,” he began, “but no-one ever mentions how far he hits the thing. He’s as long as anyone out here.” His observation had followed a round of tee shots in which McIlroy had the edge over Sergio Garcia and finished a good 45 yards ahead of Henrik Stenson. The latter, in fairness, was keeping his driver firmly in the bag.

Claude Harmon, son of Butch, could have given those spectators an interesting update on McIlroy’s length.

In the week before Abu Dhabi, when the Irishman was endeavoring to shake off the snowflakes and winter rust, he had been given the run of Butch Harmon’s Dubai academy. Before too long, he had asked young Claude if he could have a go on the launch monitor, only to walk off after a handful of shots. “Give me a couple of days,” he said, “and I’ll have another go. I need to get my body warmed up first.”

When he came back, he carried 296 yards. “It was awesome,” said Harmon. “He was right up there with the best.”

In Europe, it is almost as if McIlroy is filling in for Woods. If the cognoscenti cannot watch the man who is the best of his generation and arguably the best of all time, they are drawn to the young man who could be the next on-course Tiger. Playing in the final group Sunday at Abu Dhabi, McIlroy came up short, finishing one behind Ian Poulter and two back of winner Martin Kaymer. But that didn’t stop the comparisons. 

“He’s the first European in a long time to have a bit of Tiger about him,” said Colin Montgomerie. “I don’t think I’m any different from the other professionals in stopping to look at him when he’s on the range. He’s got this lovely fluid move through the ball.”

He is also blessed with what Monty terms “that certain something.”

“It’s to do with being young and being British but there’s more to it than that,” said the Ryder Cup captain. “A lot of people think they could be watching this year’s Masters or Open champion.”

Does he think that himself?

“Yes, I do,” he replied. “I really do. He’s that good.”

It makes sense, mind you, to voice McIlroy’s own view. Namely, that he has been in contention enough times to have more than just the one European Tour victory on his CV, even if 20 is no age to be getting impatient.

McIlroy’s own assessment of himself as a person is as good as any. “I’m a normal guy but I’m a pretty good golfer as well. I think my friends would say the same.”  Like most Irishmen, he has what it takes to speak to anyone about anything, though he confessed over the weekend that he found it rather easier to fall into chat with his mostly younger European Tour colleagues than their slightly older counterparts on the PGA Tour.

“It’s not like I have any kids to discuss,” he laughed.

When he does have kids, the signs are that he will be good with them. In the Abu Dhabi pro-am, one of his playing companion’s sons, 12-year-old Abdulla, was walking around and McIlroy did not take long to sense that that he was eager to show him his swing. When there was a lull, McIlroy took more than a passing look. He confirmed that the action was sound before delivering a happy crack as to how the lad would be beating him before too long. The boy’s day was made.

Just as McIlroy has not changed since he departed the amateur game, so no one has tried to change him.

Peter Cowen, the famed swing coach, may have half of the likely European Ryder Cup men under his wing but he expresses no desire to get his hands on McIlroy. “He’s got a fantastic setup as it is,” said Cowen. “He’s got a great coach in Mike Batton, and he’s got the best of support from his father, Gerry, who knows his game inside out. It would be madness to depart from what is a winning formula.”

Watching McIlroy’s pre-round preparation in Abu Dhabi was to be struck by the notion that his sessions are as orderly as his mop of curls is unruly. He works his way through every club in the bag and wastes no time in the process.

His trainer-physiotherapist, Cornel Driessen, volunteered that his charge is the perfect example of a young man who has benefited from playing a variety of games rather than specializing in the one sport too soon. “It’s so much better for a golfer’s overall physical development,” he said.

It was Thomas Bjorn who first told Sergio Garcia that McIlroy was like a young edition of him and Garcia has no trouble in seeing as much for himself. “Rory is very much as I was when I first came out here,” he nodded. “He plays with the same passion.”

That, allied with the extent to which the two of them were so clearly reveling in each other’s company over rounds 1 and 2, prompted the thought that they might make for a dynamic Ryder Cup partnership. Mind you, as McIlroy’s manager, Chubby Chandler, is rightly fond of reiterating, “Rory gets on with everyone – unless it’s someone particularly nasty.”

When Garcia was asked in front of the cameras if he had any advice for his young friend after the two of them had posted their opening 66s, he replied, “He needs to keep being as he is and playing as he is.”

Away from the cameras, he was asked how he would counsel McIlroy when it comes to handling the inevitable and endlessly irritating, “When are you going to win a major?” questions.

The answer, here, is that he will tell him what he tells himself.

That he only needs to win one.


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