Youth comes marching in

Youth comes marching in

Youth comes marching in

McIlroy, an irrepressible young talent not too long ago, looks to rally as fresh faces steal a march.

Two days before his 21st birthday, Rory McIlroy outpaced his elders at Quail Hollow Club to become the youngest winner on the PGA Tour since Tiger Woods. Four years later, McIlroy has gone from big deal to big brother.

Since McIlroy’s last worldwide win -- the Australian Open in December -- 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, a PGA Tour winner at 19, held the Masters lead on Sunday on his way to a tie for second. Last week, 22-year-old Seung-Yul Noh won the Zurich Classic in greater New Orleans. As if McIlroy, who turns 25 on Sunday, needed any additional reminder that he was not getting any younger, he played with a 14-year-old girl representing The First Tee of Atlanta, a youth golf non-profit, in Wells Fargo Championship pro-am.

“I know, 25, quarter of a century,” McIlroy said with a laugh.

He added: “I feel like I’m still young, but I’m a little older than they are. I think golf is in a good place that way. There’s going to be a lot of good players that are here to stay for the next decade or two.”

McIlroy seemed poised for a long stay at the summit when he climbed to No 1 in March 2012. Supplanted by Woods in March 2013, McIlroy fell out of the top 10 this week for the first time since January 2011 despite recording four more top-10 finishes since October than Woods, who has remained No 1 on the strength of five tour titles last year.

“It’s not nice to drop out,” McIlroy said. “Over three years in the top 10, you sort of get comfortable there. Hopefully, I can get myself back up into the sort of territory I have been at the last few years.”

In sports, time does not march on; it circles like a hungry shark. In the same way that McIlroy once looked up to Woods, Noh, of South Korea, has tried to emulate McIlroy, whom he met when they were grouped together at the 2008 Singapore Open.

Noh, then 17, had already distinguished himself on the Asian Tour. McIlroy, two years older, was rising on the European Tour. “I had heard before that he’s maybe the Tiger Woods in Europe,” Noh recalled. “So I said, OK. And then I played with him and I loved his golf game. He hit it so long and he hit a lot of greens, made a lot of putts.”
McIlroy tied for fourth that week, 14 strokes ahead of Noh.

“I don’t want to stereotype here, but you see Asian players come up and they have really, really good swings, but they don’t create a lot of speed,” McIlroy said. “And that’s the one thing I noticed with him. He created a lot of speed and hit it a long way.”

For his part, McIlroy seems satisfied with his driving after struggling with it the past year. His putting, he said, is what is holding him back. In 2012, McIlroy was 65th on tour in total putting. This season, he is No 120.

McIlroy managed to finish tied for eighth at the Masters, his last start, despite finishing third to last in the field in putting.

“I missed 15 putts inside 8 feet the week of the Masters,” McIlroy said. “I’ve worked on a few things since the Masters, and that’s the part of the game that I’m trying to improve a little bit more.”

McIlroy’s putting at the 2012 PGA Championship, his second major victory, seemed to impress Alejandra Ayala, who planted herself on the 18th green at Kiawah Island Resort on the final day. She said she watched McIlroy make a 15-footer on 18 and thought, "He’s going to go far.

“And he seemed really nice,” she added.

Ayala, now 14, was the grand prize winner in a video essay contest with the theme “Succeeding Together” and received a spot in this week’s pro-am field. Awarded the first choice at the draw party, she selected McIlroy.

“I asked him many questions, and he gave me putting tips,” she said. “I asked him how he feels going into tournaments, and he gave me some really good advice. He said, 'Don’t mind the crowd, don’t mind the other players - you just concentrate on yourself.'”

Ayala’s youthful exuberance made an impression on McIlroy. “She had an eagle putt on 7,” he said. “She didn’t quite make it, but she had two great shots onto the green there; hits it long for a 14-year-old. It was fun.”

He added: “She wanted to learn a lot. She asked me a lot of questions, and it was really nice to play with her.”