SANDWICH, England -- Just after Rory McIlroy turned professional back in 2007, his agent, Andrew 'Chubby' Chandler booked his young star into a two-day course of what is often euphemistically called "media training."
"Then I saw him in his first press conference," says Chandler. "I immediately got on the phone and cancelled the appointment."
Four years on, McIlroy is just about as fresh-faced, a newly-minted U.S. Open champion and even better at handling questions from a crowd of journalists eager to tell the world about the 22-year old from Holywood, Northern Ireland. While his beautifully rhythmic swing has a God-given smoothness to it, so do McIlroy's responses to even trap-laden questions.
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Asked -- as, one suspects, he knew he would be -- about his decision not to play competitively between leaving Congressional and arriving here at Royal St. George's for what will be only his third Open Championship as a professional, McIlroy's explanation flowed off his tongue like so many of the putts he holed en route to that seminal eight-shot victory last month.
"I was scheduled to play in the French Open but if I had gone there I wouldn't have been able to give the best of myself," he said. "I wouldn't have been able to practice or prepare properly. Every event I go into I want to have a chance to win, but I knew my preparation going to France wouldn't have been good enough to have a chance."
Make no mistake about it though: he thinks he can win here. Told by an Irish scribe that a brace of 20,000-pound bets have been placed on his nose this week, he was asked if such extravagant wagers were the acts of "shrewd punters or desperate men."
A slow nod of the head followed. "I'll go for the first option," he smiled.
As for the blur that has been the three weeks, McIlroy was quick to point out that, while he indulged in multiple trips to Wimbledon and an overnight stay in Hamburg to watch two men much larger than himself battle for the world heavyweight boxing title, he is more than ready to go here in Sandwich.
"The first ten days after the U.S. Open were a bit hectic, but the last ten days have been good," he revealed. "I'm back in my routine and I've been practicing a lot. I was here last week for a couple of days and got in two good practice rounds. I feel as if my preparation has been really good coming in here."
That early pre-tournament visit also provoked what is just about the first hint of controversy about this personable young man. When writers from the UK's daily newspapers enquired of International Sports Management just when their star client would be making the trip to Kent, they were told "Thursday and Friday." Which turned out to be untrue. McIlroy was there Tuesday and Wednesday, thereby avoiding the eager journalists who were, it must be said, not best pleased.
Still, it is hard to stay mad at such an appealing young man for long, especially one who so often says and does the right things. He has also, by the sound of it, got Royal St. George's all figured out.
"This is a completely different test from Congressional," he explained. "It's firm and fast. And in the wind we're going to have to keep the ball low. But sometimes it's hard to run the ball into these greens because they are so undulating. What is needed is a very strong ball flight.
"Especially with the rough not being up, this course is going to be all about the second shot and making sure that you get the ball in the right position from the tee and on the greens."
Such a formula sounds about right, especially when combined with the confidence that comes with a maiden major victory. Although summoning up self-belief isn't something one so naturally gifted has ever had trouble with.
'My mental approach won't change this week," insisted McIlroy. "If anything I have more confidence knowing that I can do it. When I step onto the first tee in a major I know that I've done this before. So there's no reason why you shouldn't do it again. If I can bottle the mentality I had at the U.S. Open going into every tournament, I'd be very happy."
The final part of McIlroy's preparation came in the shape of nine holes at what might just be the best links in all the world of golf.
"My dad has been a great influence on my career," he acknowledged, not for the first or last time. "Last night we went to Royal County Down at about 7pm. It was just him and me. There was basically no one else on the course. It was a really nice moment.
"We did the exact same thing last year going into St. Andrews. It brought back a lot of memories, playing with my dad, teeing off at 5pm and finishing at nine."
Then he smiled. It was a relaxed smile, a knowing smile. Lack of competitive play or not, "Rors" is the man to beat this week.
-- John Huggan
(Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)