McIlroy says criticism is just part of the deal
Shakespeare’s Henry IV wasn’t a fan of the huge responsibility that comes with high office but Rory McIlroy appears to be thoroughly at ease as world’s number one-ranked golfer.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”? Not McIlroy, who has impressed even Tiger Woods with the way he has handled the pressure and the scrutiny that comes with the role since he ascended to the throne by winning the Honda Classic 12 months ago.
Woods closed with a career-low final round of 62 to put McIlroy under pressure as he came down the stretch. But the then 22-year old responded. McIlroy, who was just two strokes clear of clubhouse leader Woods with five holes to play, closed with five seemingly nerveless pars to become world number one for the first time.
The youngster had to come through PGA National’s dreaded Bear Trap – the attritional stretch from the 15th to the 17th – to achieve his boyhood dream.
As he stood on the 15th tee, his occasional mentor, Jack Nicklaus, summed up the situation perfectly, telling the TV audience: “When you have got to play these holes and 18 to be number one, well, the number one should be able to do that.”
McIlroy had to get up and down for his par on each of the three holes before closing out a memorable victory in front of thousands of new admirers and his parents Rosie and Gerry.
No one said it was going to be easy and last year’s mid-season struggles, which led to him conceding the top ranking to Luke Donald not once but twice, were quickly forgotten when he won the US PGA in record fashion and then triumphed another three times to claim Player-of-the-Year honours on both sides of the Atlantic.
When he won his second Major at Kiawah Island, the young Ulsterman was delighted to ram the criticism he’d received down a few throats and “prove a few people wrong”.
Fast forward seven months and McIlroy’s game is once again under the microscope. He’s only played three competitive rounds of golf since signing a new club endorsement deal with Nike in January. Yet a missed cut and a less than impressive performance in losing to Shane Lowry in the first round of last week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play has the critics sharpening their pencils once more.
One would expect McIlroy to be positively bristling at this stage. But there is no real sense of tension about the youngster this time. Indeed, he positively wowed onlookers in Palm Beach Gardens on Tuesday night when he attended a function.
As Woods said yesterday: “I think Rory is doing a fantastic job of dealing with it all. I got to number one very quickly. I turned pro in August and I think by Augusta, somewhere in there, I became number one.
“It was a little bit faster than what Rory has had but he’s had time to adapt and to grow into it. I think he’s done a fantastic job of it.”
The 14-time Major winner has become friends with the Co Down tyro and they apparently had a ball when playing a 36-hole money match at Medalist last Sunday. “We were joking and he said let’s make it another 1-2 finish at the Honda this year except the other way around,” McIlroy said.
“And I said, ‘no, no. I like it the way it was’. I said, ‘all that fist pumping you did on the 18th green last year and for nothing’. It was pretty funny.”
After a total of 36 weeks at the top of the world ranking, not to mention years as the heir apparent to Woods, McIlroy appears comfortable with his role as the game’s front man and oblivious to criticism he receives.
“It’s a different type of criticism. It doesn’t hurt. I guess it’s just part of the deal. It is a good position to be in,” McIlroy said. “It comes with the territory. I understand that people are going to ask the questions and it is up to me to answer them on the golf course. I know I need to play well. It’s not like I need people to tell me.”
Then with a grin, he added: “If I was lower down the rankings, I wouldn’t have 15 media around me when I have a sponsorship function.”
McIlroy inner circle suffers more than McIlroy himself but if he needs perspective he just has to ask his father. “My dad? He just says to me, ‘you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine’.”
He’s searching for “that little spark”, like the moment of clarity he had in the Bridgestone Invitational last year that led to his US PGA win and that sensational run of end of season.
Nothing much has changed since then bar the new clubs and Nike millions. And even the money means little to him beyond what it does for his family.
Asked the best thing about the money, he gestured across the crowded room and said: “I guess looking at my Mum and Dad over there. It’s being able to repay them for everything they have done for me. It is so great to have them here and to be able to look after them.”