McIlroy is learning from front of the field
BRITISH OPEN COUNTDOWN:The world number two admits he has seen a lot of changes in his life over the last year, both professionally and personally, but his will to win and love of the game is as strong as ever, writes PHILIP REID
NO LONGER a boy wonder, just a wonder, he is drilling balls cleanly off the turf. The target is unusual. Instead of taking aim at a flag stick stuck on to a green, Rory McIlroy – the world’s number two ranked player and the 2011 US Open champion – is firing Titleist golf balls at a metal goalpost which has been set up on the range some 150 yards away, a la Soccer AM’s crossbar challenge.
And, of course, he succeeds.
His reaction is of the wide-grinned, fist-in-the-air variety that reminds those looking on that he retains a boyish enthusiasm to go along with his inner competitive streak.
Don’t be fooled by appearances: inside, the will-to-win in this 23-year-old body is greater than ever; and, ahead of next week’s British Open at Royal Lytham and St Annes, this crossbar challenge set-up by EA Sports, one of his sponsors, at The Grove, an exclusive hotel outside London, is playful diversion and a precursor to the real and serious preparatory work conducted over two days of practice on Thursday and yesterday at the Lancashire links.
Practice, the key to it all.
As he puts it, “it’s not talent that gets you to the top. Talent can only get you so far. It is then having the work ethic, the dedication, the capacity just to handle that and use it in the right way. The guys that I admire on tour are the guys that aren’t as technically gifted or talented as I am and make so much of their games. I mean, Harrington. You’ve seen Harrington play when he was 17, 18. I’ve seen videos of him. I admire guys like that who just get every last drop out of their game and still do, he’s turned it around and is playing great.
“Another good friend, G-Mac as well. He gets everything out of his game. I like being around him and playing with him because I think, if I could just take some of that from him, he’s just so professional about everything he does and I feel that’s something I’ve got better at.
“Because you see it across all sports. The talented ones are usually the lazy ones or the ones that don’t turn up to training or hit as many balls as the others or do whatever. I learned that quickly when I was on tour, that it is going to take much more than being able to hit high draws and low cuts to win out here.”
The past year and a bit has been a life-changer for McIlroy. The meltdown at the Masters. The bounce-back, a record-breaking win at Congressional. A new girlfriend, who just happens to be a sports star in her own right. All change.
“A lot has changed, which is a good thing I think, because change is good and you have to develop. I suppose you have to grow into your own skin in a way and I felt I did a lot of that last year with a few changes, personally and professionally. I think they’ve all been for the good.”
Indeed, McIlroy’s season has been one of ups and downs. Two of the season’s Majors have come and gone with an element of disappointment (tied 40th at the Masters, missed cut at the US Open), but with signs recently that he on the cusp of hitting the early-season form that saw him reach the world number one spot and win the Honda Classic on the US Tour.
“I’ve had this run after Quail Hollow [in May] where there’s been four missed cuts but, even in that, there’s been two top-10s and a big chance to win in Memphis [St Jude Classic] which I should have done. I still see the positives in it and see enough good stuff that it really gives me a bit of confidence going forward.