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A different McIlroy approaches Open

June 13, 2012|BILL DWYRE
  • Rory McIlroy may look young, but his refined playing style once again makes him a favorite to win the U.S. Open.
Rory McIlroy may look young, but his refined playing style once again makes… (Scott Halleran / Getty Images )

SAN FRANCISCO — Toss away your mental images of Rory McIlroy. Wipe the slate clean.

When he takes his first swing here Thursday in the opening round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at the Hills of Horror, a.k.a. the Olympic Club, he will no longer be the kid. The fresh-faced youth, the new young star, the boy among men, is gone. Deal with it.

No fair wanting to volunteer to pick him up after Little League practice, or bake him chocolate chip cookies. Stop worrying about whether he brought enough clean underwear or is staying out too late with all those older Irish guys, who tend to get very comfortable in the pubs.

Once you win a U.S. Open, and do so by eight shots and a record 16 under par, you have reached pro sports puberty.

McIlroy did that last year, of course, in this event that is annually staged by the United States Golf Assn. as an opportunity for its vast TV viewership to see stars became schlumps with golf clubs in their hands. The U.S. Open is less a golf tournament than a public humbling of matinee-idol millionaires.

But a funny thing happened last year at Congressional outside Washington. A 22-year-old kid with thick clumps of curly black hair protruding from a baseball cap turned the torturer into a lamb. He walked jauntily down the fairways and swung smoothly and loosely. Apparently, life holds no pressure when you are 22. He looked the beast in the eye and tickled its tummy.

He is a grizzled 23 now. The baby lotion will no longer touch the calluses.

He enters this week at Olympic with $3.2 million in winnings this year alone, making his five-year entry into pro golf worth a tidy $8.4 million. He is currently No. 2 on the world ranking list. That kind of kills the image of bagging groceries and riding home on your skateboard.

"Last year at Congressional," he says, "it was great to get the monkey off my back, if you want to say that, this early in my career."

An hour or so later, Steve Stricker, at age 45 playing in his 17th U.S. Open, admits that his time to win a major is probably running out. McIlroy was still toddling when Stricker first faced that monkey. Stricker now swings with King Kong on his shoulders.

McIlroy is missing that perspective because, well, he is 23. But it is a wise-and-seasoned 23 that will attempt to defend a title that, for the most part, is un-defendable. In the last 74 years, only two have done it -- Curtis Strange in 1988-89 and some guy named Ben Hogan in 1950-51.

McIlroy is asked what has changed the most about his life since he scorched the earth at Congressional.

"I think I'm viewed differently by the golfing public maybe more recognized outside of golf now because of that win," he says. "It's really given me a lot of self-belief, knowing that I've won one of these before and that I can go and do it again.

"Hopefully, it didn't change me much as a person."

In general, the public embraces him, likes his story and likes him. He got to hug his father, Gerry, in front of millions of TV viewers last year on the 18th green at Congressional and got to tell how his parents took extra jobs so he, an only child, could pursue his golfing dream.

He handles his ups and downs with a perspective that has kind of an anti-Tiger Woods charm. When he shows anger during a tournament, it seems out of frustration, rather than off-putting fury. When he falls hard on his face, he fesses up and handles it in a way that triggers empathy, not antipathy. That was the aftermath of his final-round choke in the 2011 Masters, where he led the final round and shot an 80.

He has played four of the last five weeks. Even when he finally got it going last week at Memphis, that didn't end well. He blew a chance to win by hitting a tee shot into the water.

Still, heading into the second golf major of the year, the player who was the youngest U.S. Open champion since Bobby Jones in 1923, has become a man to be reckoned with every time he tees it up.

At 5 feet 9 and 160 pounds, he has a gigantic future. Also, a sizable fan base, certainly enhanced by the presence of his girlfriend, Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, not long ago No. 1 in the world in her sport.

Then, there is the ultimate recognition of his celebrity stature. It was Irish Heritage Night at the San Francisco Giants game Tuesday, and McIlroy was invited to throw the ceremonial first pitch. Asked whether he feared bouncing it, he said, "I'd rather get booed at a baseball game than on the golf course."

The Giants also honored him by giving away the current No. 1 silly symbol of sports celebrity. With Irish Heritage Night came a Rory McIlroy bobblehead doll.

"It's maybe better-looking than me," McIlroy says, "which is a good thing."

Ah, a nice self-effacing sense of humor too.

That's not often found among those who lay around all day, waiting for mom to cook dinner.


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