Rory McIlroy at ease in role as dominant force
USPGA champion expects to play – and embrace – the role of leader at Ryder Cup
Rory McIlroy reacts after winning the 96th US PGA Championship at the Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky. Photograph: EPA
Northern Ireland Rory McIlroy reacts after winning the 96th PGA Championship golf tournament at the Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky. Photograph: EPA
In the darkness of Sunday night, after fulfilling the rituals that behold champions in signing flags and undergoing a stream of media commitments, Rory McIlroy – and his team – left Valhalla Golf Club and walked the 20 steps to the Mercedes SUV that would take them to the airport and onwards to New York for a few days of deserved celebrations.
Across the way, barely five yards away, the car space reserved for Tiger Woods was vacant, as it had been since Friday when the 14-times Major missed the cut. Somehow, though, as the last player to leave the premises again at a Major, the entire scene reaffirmed – if it were needed – that a changing of the guard has taken place. These days, McIlroy is top of the heap.
McIlroy’s rise to the top has been quite awesome these past number of weeks and months. In adding the US PGA title to the British Open of last month, the 25-year-old became the first player since Pádraig Harrington in 2008 to win back-to-back Majors; he became the third youngest, of the modern era since 1934, to win four Majors; and he jumped to the top of the US Tour’s FedEx Cup standings heading into the play-offs.
If the few days break in the Big Apple – before bringing the Claret Jug to Old Trafford this weekend for Manchester United’s opening league match of the season – will bring some relief from the intensity of playing down the stretch, the respite will be short.
For McIlroy is heading into an extremely busy stretch, returning to action in next week’s Barclays Championship – the first of four playoff tournaments that finish with the Tour Championship in Atlanta – and, then, there is the little matter of the Ryder Cup next month.
The days when McIlroy referred to that biennial match as an exhibition are long gone. And, as he has evolved as a player, so too has his status to the point that he expects to play – and embrace – the role of leader in Gleneagles. “I’m not one of the most experienced guys but I am going to have to be a talisman and going to have to drive us forward. I’m going to have to accept that responsibility.”
Is he comfortable with such a role? “Of course I’m comfortable with it. The first two Ryder Cups maybe I felt a little out of place to put my hand up and offer my opinion. Like, who am I? But, now, I’ve experienced a couple and am in a place in the game that warrants I can lead the team, so it is a good place to be in.”
Grand ambitionsYet, that Ryder Cup is only one of a long list of goals that McIlroy – who is also a runaway leader on the European Tour’s Race to Dubai standings – has in his head.
The Northern Irishman has moved into even more distinguished company in claiming a fourth career Major and, in admitting “there’s a lot of goals on the horizon, I’m just trying to take it one step at a time,” one of his stated ambitions is to become the greatest European player of all time.
On that front, Nick Faldo – who has six career Majors – leads the way, but McIlroy has won his four (the 2011 US Open, the 2012 US PGA, the 2014 British Open and the 2014 USPGA) in faster time and, where Faldo’s were spread between the British and the Masters, McIlroy has won three different Majors, the Masters being the only one absent.
He explained: “I think the two next realistic goals are the career Grand Slam and trying to become the most successful European ever in the modern era. Nick Faldo has six. Seve (Ballesteros) has five. Obviously, the career Grand Slam coming up at Augusta in eight months time, they are the next goals. And hopefully I can achieve those, (then) I can start to think about other things. If I can do that, then I can move on and set different goals.”
McIlroy will head to Augusta in search of that last leg of the career Grand Slam. “It’s the only one I haven’t won and I desperately want to get that green jacket . . . I know if I play my game and play the golf I’m capable of, (that) will do. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t think I can win a green jacket and complete the career Grand Slam.”
It seems as if McIlroy is counting down the days to that Augusta assignment. “It’s 242 days away,” he told us, adding: “Look, we can’t get ahead of ourselves. I’m playing great golf at the minute and I want to keep this run going as long as I can and hopefully I am in just as good form heading into Augusta next year and have a chance to win the career Grand Slam. If that happens, then we’ll turn our attention to Chambers Bay (US Open) and I will try and get the job done there.
“But, first things first, I have a lot of golf to play this year and I’ll try and take care of that before turning my attention to Augusta.”
Poster boyIn winning the Claret Jug and the Wanamaker Trophy inside the space of a month, and doubling his total of Majors in doing so, McIlroy has become golf’s poster boy. “There’s only two active players in this generation who have more Majors than me, and that’s Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. I’ve drawn level with Ernie Els. I’ve drawn level with Vijay Singh. I’ve drawn level with Raymond Floyd. If not already, they are names that’ll be in the Hall of Fame. I’ve put my name alongside theirs at the age of 25, so that’s pretty lofty company okay.”
For sure, given he is in the form of his life, McIlroy – just as Woods did in his heyday – has developed an aura. In Sunday’s final round, there were indicators that McIlroy’s charge impacted on others. Fowler’s bogey on the 14th. Mickelson’s bogey on the 16th. Stenson too faltering. McIlroy felt his presence was a factor.
“I’m not saying my name on the leaderboard affected them, but it had to do something, especially with the play I’ve produced over the past few weeks. It’s just another thing to have in your locker, knowing if I get my name on the leaderboard maybe it will affect the other guys.”
And, as he has shown in recent weeks, stringing one win after another after another together, McIlroy is comfortable in his role as the new dominant player in the game. “I don’t think you can see it as a burden, it’s a great place to be in . . . to be the face of golf, one of the faces, is a big responsibility. But I feel I am up to the task of handling it well.”
World number one. Four-time Major champion. “At 25 years of age, I didn’t think I would be in this position.” After a phenomenal summer, autumn beckons.The cycle continues.