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Golf’s Next Big Swing

BETHESDA, MARYLAND | It was not so much an issue of probability but inevitability. Rory McIlroy was a prodigy although never a problem, a golfing genius with a sense of purpose destined to be the game’s new star and maybe latest savior.

This was coming, this bravura performance in the U.S. Open, this confirmation of greatness. We knew it. He knew it, if no one accurately could have predicted specifically that McIlroy would grab historic Congressional Country Club and America’s national championship with such verve and force.

Sixteen-under par, only four holes over par of the 72 played – one double bogey and three bogeys. The way he stood there after the final putt dropped, McIlroy seemed as much in disbelief as was the world of golf. How could it be?

A major was in his future. That was certain. He was too good, too focused, too driven. The collapse on the back nine the final day of The Masters was only a hiccup, a reminder that no matter how much talent and determination a young man may possess, humans are not perfect.

But a rout of his rivals and a romp along the fairways? Who dared imagine?

Jack Nicklaus, still the greatest of them all, had spoken to McIlroy after that jarring 80 at Augusta in April, and Sunday during the Open said to NBC all he did was tell McIlroy failure is part of golf and to learn from the mistakes. Advice, explained Jack, not instructions.

“I like his moxie,” were Nicklaus’ words posted on his web site about McIlroy. “I suppose that’s the right word for the way he carries himself, moxie.”

Or courage. Or gumption.

We’ve heard of Tiger Woods, how he was on Mike Douglas’ TV show at 2 years old smacking golf balls, how unprecedented he won three consecutive U.S. Amateurs, how in the 2000 Open he overwhelmed Pebble Beach and the field, finishing 12-under par and 15 ahead of the two pros who were second. All inextricably woven into the legend.

Now comes the tale of Rory McIlroy, appropriately from a suburb of Belfast, Northern Ireland called Holywood but pronounced “Hollywood.” Hurray for Holywood. Hurray for McIlroy.

He grew up studying Tiger’s background and at age 2 hit his own 40-yard tee shot. He used to chip plastic balls into his mother’s washing machine. At 18, as an amateur, he had a 68 in the first round of the 2007 Open Championship, one shot lower than Tiger. “He’s fearless,” said Henrik Stenson of Rory that day. “I think we’ll be hearing more of him in the future.”

And now we may never stop hearing of him.

He was never a scholar, Rory McIlroy, he was a golfer.

“In math’s class,” he told the Daily Telegraph of his elementary school years, “I was dreaming of winning the Open (The British Open, but conveniently he can substitute U.S. Open). In English I did a lot of practicing of my autograph.”

Practicality ruled. So did intent. McIlroy is confident without being arrogant, a kid now of 22 who, when he showed up at Augusta this spring bought a football – one of the American spheroids, not a soccer ball – and with his pals from Northern Ireland tried to emulate Tom Brady. No chance.

Then again Brady, albeit a decent amateur, has no chance of emulating Rory McIlroy. Perhaps because of the fortunate blending of charisma and skill, none of the set of Young Lions on the golf Tour do either.

“He’s potentially the next Tiger Woods,” was the observation of Graeme McDowell. A biased report, possibly, if not an inaccurate one. McDowell, who won the Open last year at Pebble Beach is also from Northern Ireland, a country of only 1.6 million but back-to-back champions.

Potentially, but not necessarily. Woods didn’t enter this Open because of injuries, and we are aware of his decline in popularity, but in America at least he’s still No. 1 and Phil Mickelson No. 2. And provincial as it seems, you need to be famous in the United States to get attention and endorsements.

Already McIlroy reduced his U.S. schedule, skipping The Players, hardly a move to increase his appeal. Then again, in the awards ceremony, when Bob Costas asked McIlroy whether he would play more in the United States, Rory, in his fashion, answered, “I might have to.”

Indeed. He is the U.S. Open champion, and if America is not his home it is where he made his major breakthrough.

McIlroy is golf’s next generation, someone mature enough who can stand up to success or failure and child enough to hug his father with a long embrace on the 18th green at Congressional.

He can challenge Tiger Woods, if gently. He can revere Tiger Woods.

“If you’re going to talk about someone challenging Jack,” Padraig Harrington said, alluding to Nicklaus’ 18 majors, “there’s your man. He would have 20 more years and probably 100 more majors.”

But surely for Rory McIlroy, champion of the 2011 U.S. Open, none as memorable or astounding as this first.


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