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New era for golf as McIlroy starts on path to greatness

Alex Dimond
June 20, 2011
Rory McIlroy re-wrote the record books, and rewrote everyone's opinion of him to boot © Getty Images
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Rory McIlroy didn't just usher in a new era for golf on Sunday at Congressional, he drummed it home.

And an American crowd applauded wildly as he did it.

The 22-year-old from Holywood has long been one of the game's brightest prospects, blessed with a natural swing and potential for greatness that either you are born with, or you are not.

But he carries with him something more than that, a likeability and a charm that helps him transcend a barrier as suddenly trivial as nationality, to such an extent that he was be cheered on by all-comers as he wrapped up one of the most one-sided major championship results in recent memory.

Americans didn't make noise like they did at Congressional when one of their own, Jim Furyk, was mercilessly grinding to an easy victory at Olympia Fields eight years ago. Not since Tiger Woods - in 1997 at Augusta, not 2000 at Pebble Beach - has a victory of such masterful ease been greeted with such joy.

Part of that is something inherent within McIlroy, and charisma and warmth he exudes that draws interest and support. But part of that also comes from the memories of previous major setbacks he has suffered - whether it be the second round 80 at St Andrew's last year that cost him the Open Championship, or the meltdown at The Masters that saw him lose out on a Green Jacket most people had mentally already dressed him in.

To crumble so publicly, so painfully and on such a stage attracted support in lieu of sympathy - especially after the magnanimous way he handled the whole saga and its aftermath.

One of McIlroy's great triumphs on Sunday, then, was proving that he never needed the sympathy - that he was never a figure to be pitied, but instead always a talent to be marvelled at.

McIlroy didn't shy from public comment after faltering at Augusta, but it is clear he was being somewhat economical with the truth. While maintaining to the media that it was 'one of those things' and it wouldn't scar him mentally, he secretly went away and drew every last ounce of insight he could from the experience to make him bulletproof next time a similar opportunity arose.

"After the Masters, this is what he needed," his father, Gerry, said as Rory began his preparations on Sunday. "He's been playing very well, and this week he's been very determined. After the Masters he really went away and worked on his game, and we're seeing the results.

"McIlroy proved he was never a figure to be pitied, but instead always a talent to be marvelled at"

"I think the Masters was what he needed. He really worked hard and it's really great what's happening now."

McIlroy strengthened his psyche, and then he strengthened his mechanics. As his putting let him down in Georgia, so he went away and worked on it with one of the best in the business, Dave Stockton, to make him more solid on the greens.

The result was fewer practice moves, a more repeatable stroke and just 119 putts over four days around one of the toughest courses and most contoured greens in the United States.

Couple that with the silky-smooth swing that has had knowledgeable observers reaching back towards Sam Snead for a comparison, and you have a recipe for an utterly dominating victory.

"Augusta was a very valuable experience for me," McIlroy acknowledged in his victory interview. "I knew what I needed to do today to win and at Augusta I learned a few things about myself and my game, and I put a few different things into practice and it paid off."

The intriguing thing about McIlroy is that, while his two professional wins prior to Sunday had not come from commanding positions (his most recent success, at Quail Hollow, came only after a blistering final round 62), he has suddenly developed an amazing habit of storming into the lead at major championships.

He did so at St Andrews in the Open Championship last year, before a second round in the eighties cost him the championship, and then he finished in a tie for third at the USPGA won by Martin Kaymer.

After nearly making a hole-in-one at the 10th, McIlroy had everyone in the crowd cheering him home © Getty Images
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He did it at Augusta for three days, as we all know, and then did it at Congressional - wire-to-wire.

What is increasingly clear, then, is that the final nine holes at Augusta were a blip. For the first time since Tiger Woods (no, we couldn't go a whole article without mentioning him, even in absentia) we appear to have a player on our hands who raises his game for the greatest events of all.

It bodes well for the future. If he continues to produce his best golf on the biggest stages, then it won't be long before his troubles in Georgia back in the spring of 2011 become simply an illuminating footnote on his path towards greatness - much like Arnold Palmer in 1966.

For now, the greatest obstacle to a challenge at next month's Open Championship at Royal St George's (where his game should still suit the course nicely) will be all the distractions that come with being a major champion. His manager, Chubby Chandler, has already intimated his young charge will not do all the talkshow interviews that seem to come with the territory, the PR commitments Graeme McDowell happily took on (to the detriment of his form now?) after his own epic victory at Pebble Beach 12 months ago.

But then there will be the sponsorship interest, with suggestions he could make as much as £40 million-a-year in endorsements once some of his current deals come up for renewal.

One industry expert even estimated McIlroy could get over £3m from a sponsor eager to put their logo on the vacant left shoulder of his polo shirts. Even for someone as grounded as McIlroy appears to be, that is a tempting sum of money to be waved around.

"I know my friends back home will be celebrating tonight," the man himself said in his finest hour … to date. "I can't wait to get back and join them."

Congratulations then Rory, on this breakthrough success. Enjoy it, and enjoy all the perks that come with your new-found fame and status.

But everyone now expects you to go on and win many more. That might seem like a challenge, but really it's a compliment.

This wasn't any old major victory, which suggests you aren't any old major champion.

Greatness awaits. And everyone will enjoy watching as you pursue it.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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