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GOLF

Rory McIlroy goes for the glory

At 20, youngster from Northern Ireland has already come a long way and he sees no reason why he can't contend at the British Open.

July 12, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

LUSS, SCOTLAND — Around noon Saturday in a golf dreamland by a sapphire lake, a teenage boy's mouth went agape, and clearly the world had made another of its patented accelerations.

Walking by the ropes from the No. 9 tee box toward the No. 8 green at the Scottish Open, the boy suddenly found himself striding right past a young man not so much older who headed opposite, whereupon the younger face lit up because by now, already, it's possible to feel gobsmacked just by the sight of Rory McIlroy.

As they ready the greens and the gristle stands down along Scotland's west coast for the 138th British Open this week in Turnberry, it's a bit breakneck to fathom that in the 136th, or just a few minutes ago, McIlroy turned up at Carnoustie as an 18-year-old amateur, embarked with a bogey-less 68 on Thursday and said, "I'm knackered."

He told of Holywood, his Northern Ireland hometown near Belfast, how everybody knows everybody at the Holywood Golf Club, how at 7 he watched Tiger Woods win the 1996 U.S. Amateur and everything became "Tiger-Tiger-Tiger," how the ovations at Carnoustie gave him "just a chill down the back of my spine."

He finished 42nd, won the silver medal as low amateur, won playing partner Scott Verplank's praise as somebody who looked "14" but played "28," won an upbraiding from his father for hurling a club on No. 11, and eyeballed a vacation in Dubai that promised the joys of indoor snow skiing.

Well, low amateurs can come and go rather vaporously, but look now: McIlroy dwells for a sixth month in the top 20 of the world, stirs a hullabaloo of hope for even this British Open so soon, has become famous enough that some drunk Scot rants on a shuttle bus that the lad needs a haircut, and feels such overwhelming discomfort with the expectations that he said this:

"It's going to be my third major as a professional, and I've done well in the majors this year. I've been pleased with my results. I had a 20th at the Masters and finished 10th at the U.S. Open. If I can keep this progression, hopefully it will mean a first next week. I feel as if I'm playing well enough."

Well, then, three majors, 20th,10th, first, sure, why not? The planet's speeding up again and the raves pour in from golf experts who realize ages such as 19 and 20 just aren't all that young anymore.

Geoff Ogilvy went for "by far the best young player I've ever played with." Padraig Harrington chose "already at the very top." Just this week, Ian Poulter told reporters on Thursday, "Give him a couple of years, and he will be seriously troubling Mr. Woods." Just last winter, Mark O'Meara famously chose the ever-popular "better than Tiger was at 19" to describe McIlroy's ball-striking. Paul Casey remembered first seeing McIlroy at 17 and remembered "the best player I've ever seen at that age." Ogilvy persisted with "feasible he's going to be top two or three in the world within a year." To have Gary Player say, "And what a beautiful swing," must qualify as some form of poetry.

And then, Eldrick T. Woods, in March: "He has all the components to be the best player in the world, there's no doubt," which on these islands seemed to count as sort of its own No. 1 ranking.

Along the way, absolutely everybody extols his demeanor and his I-belong-here carriage on the course.

Besides, he already has endured the long, uphill slog of learning how to win on a Sunday. It took him an eternal 21 weeks from Sept. 7 when he fumbled a four-shot lead at the European Masters to Feb. 1 when he held off Justin Rose at Dubai to claim his first European Tour title.

He said that it got "a monkey off my back."

So throngs follow him and glimpse the white cap with "RORS" stitched on the back, the willful hair that rebels out the sides of it, the St. Bernard club-head cover (a dog aficionado, he used to own a St. Bernard), and the swing that causes mass cooing and earned the unbeatable description "syrupy" from the Belfast sportswriter Jack Magowan. Throw in that for the Scottish Open, McIlroy decks out daily in tartan trousers and reels off the various styles for the various days -- "So I've got . . . a MacGillivray tartan, a Loch Lomond tartan, a Forever Scotland tartan [purple-based, evidently], and I've got a McDonald's tartan, as well" -- and you have what you call pleased masses.

The experts, the ones with dimpled brains, already know full well his back story, from the working-class parents (his mother worked overnight at the 3M factory, his father at two or three jobs at once), the 61 at age 16 at fabled Royal Portrush, the international wins at ages such as 9 and 10, the accurate chips down the hallway into the family's open washing machine at 8, the 40-yard drive at 2.

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