Golf's next big sensation

Golf's next big sensation

bright future Rory McIlroy will be the one to eclipse Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors, according to two-time British Open winner Padraig Harrington. AFP

Golf’s next great player is every mother’s son, a self-effacing and unaffected 22-year-old from Northern Ireland, who bounced down the fairways to win his first major championship Sunday with a smile, a shrug and an incomparable swing.

Not often does a dominator disarm the way Rory McIlroy did at Congressional Country Club, breaking US Open records that were owned by Tiger Woods. While Woods was laid up at home in Florida, nursing a bad knee and a troublesome Achilles’ tendon and facing a questionable future, McIlroy became the youngest player in 88 years to win the U.S. Open.

He set 12 Open scoring records, including the lowest 72-hole score, a 16-under-par 268, and won by eight strokes. He basked in an outpouring of love on a muggy afternoon from golf fans who hollered his name at every hole. Rarely has a golfer from Europe been treated to choruses of distinctly American sports chants – “Here we go, Rory, here we go!”

The last time the athlete deemed the future of golf won his first US Open, it was Woods 11 years ago at Pebble Beach. What he did during the 2000 Open on the rock-hard golf course on the Monterey Peninsula seemed unapproachable, much as the man himself turned out to be. His performance was greeted with incredulity and disbelief, accompanied by words like “other-worldly” and “superhuman.”

But Woods has not won a tournament since November 2009, when he was first embroiled in the sex scandal that led to the breakup of his marriage and tarnished his reputation. Woods’ fall from grace left golf’s fans with a void, hoping for the next big thing and wondering who it would be.

Arriving as he has, fulfilling years of predictions about his potential, McIlroy has brought with him a freshening wind of promise.

Tom Callahan, the Golf Digest columnist and author of “His Father’s Son,” a book about Earl Woods that had some of the year’s best insights about Earl’s son, Tiger, has been to many US Opens. He said Sunday at Congressional that this was the first one in years that had thrilled him. McIlroy is the reason.

“He’s the one who’s been on the horizon, the guy everybody has been hoping would come along,” Callahan said. “I’m ready for a sports hero who doesn’t treat the world like his spittoon.”

With the excitement comes curiosity about the kid who was raised in the blue-collar town of Holywood near Belfast by working parents who made sacrifices to get him proper golf training and did the rest themselves.

His mother, Rosie, is a former factory worker who does not hesitate to let her son know when she thinks he might be getting a little too full of himself. His father, Gerry, grew up near the Holywood Golf Club and tended bar there, teaching his young son the basics of the game beginning at age 4 -- when young Rory first smashed a long drive of 40 yards.
By 7 he was a member of the club and by 15, he had qualified for his first professional event.

McIlroy now seems to do everything right. He calls his parents back home every day he is on the road. He accepts compliments with grace, and does not hesitate to gently correct hyperbole about his ability, particularly when it involves comparisons to Woods.

When Padraig Harrington of Ireland said McIlroy would be the first one to break Jack Nicklaus’ major championship record of 18 -- a record Woods, with 14, has coveted for years -- McIlroy put his head down sheepishly. “Paddy, Paddy, Paddy, I’m trying to win my first,” he said.

He proved over the past week that his golf game is complete in every aspect. His long, accurate drives found mostly fairways. With a pinpoint iron game, he hit more than 80 percent of the greens. He shored up what used to be a suspect short game.

“The thing about these major championships is the history and the prestige,” McIlroy said. “Just being able to add your name to a list like Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer -- that is the most satisfying thing about it.”  To some, McIlroy has shades of Hogan and Byron Nelson already. After McIlroy closed out the tournament, which he had led since Thursday’s first round, the golf author Dan Jenkins posted on Twitter, “Rory has the repeating swing of Hogan and Nelson, and the likability of Arnold.”

“Nothing this kid does ever surprises me,” said Graeme McDowell, also of Northern Ireland and last year’s Open champion. “He’s the best player I’ve ever seen. He’s great for golf. He’s a breath of fresh air for the game and perhaps we’re ready for golf’s next superstar and maybe Rory is it.”

McIlroy realizes he will be subject to inevitable comparisons to Woods. But he avoids them when he can, because, as someone who was 11 when he began watching Woods, he knows Woods won 24 tournaments before he turned 25. McIlroy has won three at age 22.

But McIlroy is a golfer loved by the camera as much as he is by fans. Nicklaus also won his first major championship when he was 22, a few months older than McIlroy, believes McIlroy is special.“I love his moxie, the sort of way he walks, sort of cocksure about himself,” Nicklaus said. ‘`I kind of like that in a guy. You’ve got to have confidence in what you’re doing. I think this kid’s going to have a great career. He’s got all the components, he’s got lots of people rooting for him.”

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