Contentment off course reaping huge dividends for McIlroy


RORY McILROY was on the practice green on Thursday at Dove Mountain, taking strokes with a putter in his right hand as he talked on a mobile phone in his left.

Before McIlroy teed off in the second round of the Accenture Match Play Championship, he checked in with his girlfriend, Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, who was in Dubai for a tournament. McIlroy said he watched her match before arriving at the course for his 3 and 2 victory against Wozniacki’s compatriot Anders Hansen.

Three years ago, McIlroy made his professional debut in the United States at this event and reached the quarter-finals, impressing onlookers with his game and his grounded demeanour.

Ernie Els, a three-time Major champion, predicted at the time that McIlroy, a freckle-faced youngster with clown hair, would one day reach number one. After his 3 and 1 victory over Lee Westwood in yesterday’s semi-final, McIlroy was one victory away from realising that prophecy – although Hunter Mahan was to prove too great an obstacle.

“It’s a nice incentive,” McIlroy said. “It’s nice to have in the back of your mind. And if you are struggling in a match and find it hard to get yourself up or get any sort of momentum, you think about that and you think if you can really dig deep you still have a chance to become number one.”

Since winning last year’s US Open, McIlroy (22) has split from long-time manager Chubby Chandler over a reported disagreement on the best course to promote his personal brand, decided to move from Belfast to Florida, parted ways with his childhood sweetheart and begun a relationship with Wozniacki, who started this year the way McIlroy hopes to end it: at number one in the world.

Has the pride of the Co Down town of Holywood gone Hollywood?

Asked last week about the upheaval, McIlroy said: “Things change, and you know, people move on. I felt like I just needed a few fresh ideas and – yeah, I feel very content and very happy at the moment with everything that’s going on.

“And I feel like my golf game is in good shape. I think when things are in order off the golf course, it can allow you to play better on it.”

McIlroy’s celebrity, which was budding three years ago in the desert, has since bloomed. If any pruning is necessary, it was not evident on Wednesday when McIlroy was the last player to advance, sealing his two-up first-round victory against George Coetzee under the veil of dusk.

After meeting reporters, McIlroy stopped at the range, which he had to himself. For the next 25 minutes, he hit 47 balls. Between shots, he discussed with his caddie, JP Fitzgerald, swings he had made during the round, while Horizon’s Conor Ridge, who succeeded Chandler as McIlroy’s manager, watched.

A small crowd gathered behind the range and admired the flight of McIlroy’s shots. When he was done, he walked over to the fans straining against the security barrier and signed autographs. As he exited the range, Ridge asked about dinner, and McIlroy said he had to go to the gym first.

The spotlight casts a shadow on McIlroy’s work ethic. The strength of his game is his driving, but he dispatched Hansen with deft play on and around the greens.

“I’ve been working on that part of my game,” he said. “It’s something I felt I needed to improve, to be honest.”

In his next match, a 3 and 1 victory against Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez, McIlroy missed two putts inside five feet and fluffed a couple of chips, but his iron play was crisp.

Jimenez, who at 48 is old enough to be McIlroy’s father, had a warm exchange with him afterward. “Miguel told me he hopes I go all the way and get number one,” he said.

Despite the outcome last night, McIlroy has been heartened by his early results, including a second and a fifth in his first two European Tour events.

“When I don’t have my best game I’m confident I can hang in there,” he said, adding: “I’m a more mature player and a more mature person.

“The more tournaments you play, the more experience you get. I’m learning from my mistakes.”

The final round of the 2011 Masters was a painful lesson.

McIlroy held a four-stroke lead after 54 holes but closed with an 80 to finish 10 shots behind the winner and then fellow ISM stablemate Charl Schwartzel, who learned a lot about McIlroy afterwards as they travelled by private jet to a tournament in Asia.

“He came up to me, congratulated me, wanted to take photos with me,” Schwartzel said. “He joked, ‘At least the green jacket is on the airplane’. It was a very unbelievable thing for him to do. It shows his character, what sort of person he is. That’s why he’s obviously having the success he has, because of the attitude he’s got.”

In interviews, there are still shades of the smiling, wide-eyed teenage McIlroy who came to Arizona in 2009 and expressed his esteem for Tiger Woods and his desire to crack the world top 10.

“I just feel like I’m a more experienced player and a better player,” McIlroy said. “But you know, still obviously loving every minute of it, being on tour and having a good time, taking in everything that comes my way.”

New York Times Service