Nineteen-year-old Rory McIlroy's play in Tucson may have surprised some, but Euro tour observers know better: He's the real deal
Few things in life are more disappointing than the discovery that a sporting hero admired from afar is unworthy of that adulation. Once in a while, however, instinctive and distant fondness for a celebrity proves grounded in reality. Once in a while, what it says on the label is gratifyingly accurate.
Rory McIlroy—whose T-5 at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship can only be considered a break-out performance if you haven't been paying attention to what he has done in the rest of the world—is the real thing. The Irishman is one of those genuine people, despite the fact his pixie-like features and unruly mop-top hairdo support the first impression that European golf's latest star can't possibly be 19 years old. Not yet, anyway. Seated alongside him as he strolls with characteristic aplomb through a phone interview with British journalists, the temptation to ruffle those flowing locks or pat him playfully on the head is difficult to resist.
It is best not to be too taken by his fresh-faced appearance, however. In terms of dealing with media demands, he is an old hand. His first interview, he reckons, took place when he was "6 or 7."
"Even before the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie [where McIlroy won the silver medal awarded to the low amateur], the decision already had been made about Rory turning professional two months later, right after the Walker Cup," says his manager, Andrew (Chubby) Chandler. "So we were trying to get a few things in place for him. On the eve of the event we were sitting on the patio in front of the hotel behind the 18th green. I told him what invitations he already had, before mentioning I had booked him a day of media training at the end of August.
"He didn't say anything, but he did look at me a bit sideways," Chandler says. "Four days later, he had been live on the BBC after every round. On Sunday night I took him aside and told him I had canceled the media training."
McIlroy's natural charisma and friendly off-course persona shine through inside the ropes, too. The Belfast native plays with a refreshing briskness and a disarmingly youthful innocence and charm, set alongside a swing acclaimed coach Bob Torrance hails as "brilliant," "oily" and "very natural." Whatever, it has carried its owner from prodigy to world No. 1-ranked amateur to European Tour card holder (in only two events)—and now, after his victory in the Dubai Desert Classic last month, to the first of what would appear to be many wins as a professional.
Next stop America. In Tucson, his first U.S. event, McIlroy beat Louis Oosthuizen, Hunter Mahan and Tim Clark before losing to eventual champion Geoff Ogilvy. "He is by far the best young player I've ever played with," says Ogilvy, who beat McIlroy, 2 and 1. "He hits the ball well, chips and putts well and his demeanor is fantastic. The hype is fair because he's the real deal."
McIlroy will play five more times in the U.S. through the Masters. "It is great for my confidence that I have come out in my first event in America and done so well," he says. "There are a lot of positives from it that I will take into the next two weeks."
It remains to be seen whether McIlroy eventually will join the PGA Tour. "I'll try and become a world player, play the World Golf Championships and majors and then just pick and choose some of the European Tour events and some on the PGA Tour," he says. "The European Tour has been very good to me, given me a lot of invites as an amateur, and I'll always support [them]. But I don't know, at the end of this year, I'll think of taking up membership out here. It's what I've learned—the guys that try and play the two tours, it is quite tough with all the traveling back and forth over the pond. So I just have to weigh all the options and see what I get out of it. I've always enjoyed playing golf over here, and I would love to play a little more."
Chandler, however, isn't so quick to point his hot-shot prodigy toward America just yet. "There's absolutely no point in him taking out his PGA Tour card," Chandler told the Irish Times before the third round of the Match Play. "Suddenly he has got to play 15 tournaments. Suddenly they start dictating to you."
Regardless of where he plays, McIlroy knows he isn't yet a fully qualified golfer. Apart from the fact his long-time girlfriend, Holly Sweeney, is still at school in Belfast, his reaction to his triumph in Dubai speaks both to his youth and a growing maturity far beyond his teenage years.
"I learned a lot on the back nine in the last round," he says. "I had a six-shot lead with six holes to play and only won by one. What that showed me is that if I'm six shots back with only a few holes to go, I can still win from there. I learned that if I'm in that position again, I still have to work hard, I still have to hit good shots and I still have to hole the putts."