The true measure of Rory McIlroy’s exploding worldwide popularity might have been the statement issued recently by his management company on the status of his love life.
“Rory McIlroy’s longtime relationship with Holly Sweeney came to an amicable end before the Open Championship,” International Sports Management released July 18, the day after he tied for 25th in the British Open at Royal St. George’s.
Its purpose might have been twofold — to temper disappointment after McIlroy, a Northern Ireland native, failed to repeat the thrills of his runaway U.S. Open championship or to respond to the photo of him kissing Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki that was circulating that day on the Internet.
A few days later, the Irish Golf Desk reported that McIlroy, 22, had formed “a close friendship,” with Wozniacki, the world’s No. 1 player, after breaking up with the girlfriend he had known since he was 16.
The outgoing, curly haired golf sensation captured the attention of Golf Channel junkies and People magazine-reading grandmothers alike with his record-shattering 8-shot U.S. Open victory at Congressional Country Club on Father’s Day. That triumph drew comparisons to then-21-year-old Tiger Woods’ 12-stroke victory at the 1997 Masters Tournament and to Woods’ 15-stroke triumph in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. It also ignited speculation that the game devoid of a dominant player while Woods battles knee and Achilles injuries had finally found his successor.
McIlroy not only draws praise for his stunning shot-making and his natural swing, but also for his honesty and humility. After Ireland’s Padraig Harrington predicted before the final round of the U.S. Open that it would be McIlroy, not Woods, who would break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional majors, McIlroy’s reaction was “Oh, Paddy, Paddy, Paddy. You know, I’m still looking for my first one. That’s all I can say.”
That comment made a big impression on Jim Furyk.
“I know Rory shied away from that question and it was a good idea. It was very humble in doing so,” Furyk said. “It would be extremely ignorant to have one person win a major championship once and immediately start comparing him to Jack Nicklaus.
“I’m very impressed with Rory, impressed with his game, his maturity on the golf course. I do believe he’s going to win a lot more major championships. But it’s very unfair to Rory to say that. Tiger threw that out there, it was his goal when he was a kid. But that’s not many people’s style to tell you what their goals are.”
McIlroy has acknowledged his goal of winning multiple majors, but he has downplayed comparisons to Woods or Nicklaus every chance he gets.
“You can’t let what other people think of you influence what you have to do,” he said after the U.S. Open. “You have to work hard, believe in yourself. As long as you believe in yourself and believe you’re doing the right things, that’s all you can really do.”
Some questioned whether McIlroy said the right things after the British Open, when he complained about the weather rather than altering his high ball flight when the conditions dictated.
“I’m not a fan of golf tournaments that the outcome is predicted so much by the weather,” he said. “I’d rather play when it’s 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind. There’s no point in changing your game for one week a year.”
Those remarks did not go over well with the press in the United Kingdom, even as they basked in the glow of 42-year-old Darren Clarke’s victory. Clarke became the third Northern Irishman to win a major in the past six events, joining McIlroy and 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell.
With the media, McIlroy has handled himself with grace, none more so than after his final-round collapse at the Masters. Going into Sunday with a 4-shot cushion and leading for 63 holes, McIlroy shot 43 on the back nine en route to an 80 and tied for 15th, 10 strokes behind winner Charl Schwartzel.
“It was a character-building day; I’ll come out stronger for it,” McIlroy said afterward.
McIlroy made a good impression on millions of people coming off the 18th green at Augusta National. But as he joked at Royal St. George’s, “I had five or six holes to think about what I was going to say.”
That McIlroy agreed to be interviewed and did come out stronger, running away from the field at Congressional, elevated his stature in the minds of his peers.
“After the disappointment of the Masters, all of us try to learn from it and move on,” said Mark Wilson, a two-time winner in 2011. “Rory, in the eyes of everyone in the world, he put it behind him and he learned a lot from it. A phenomenal performance.”
Australian Stuart Appleby was just as impressed.
“Coming off Augusta, he looked at his game and made huge changes to probably the way he felt and thought and just tore the field apart,” Appleby said. “Congressional members must have felt disheartened after seeing what he did to their course.”
McIlroy’s U.S. Open records were the stuff of legend. His 72-hole score of 268 bested the mark of 272 shared by Nicklaus (1980), Woods (2000), Furyk (2003) and Lee Janzen (1993). McIlroy set the record for most strokes under par (16). He became the fastest to reach double-digits under par (26 holes, the previous record was 39 by Gil Morgan in 1992).
So perhaps it’s no wonder there has been a rush to anoint McIlroy as the next big thing.
“This is an unbelievable talent,” ESPN analyst Andy North said. “He’s got a wonderful golf swing. He has learned how to handle tempo of playing in a major championship. He’s working with Dave Stockton and that’s really going to help his putting.
“Will he win five majors? Will he win 25 majors? We have absolutely no idea. But the things he’s doing right now, you have to think he’s got a chance to become one of the great, great players.”
It will also help that Nicklaus is tutoring McIlroy, at least occasionally. They spent time together at this year’s Memorial Tournament, and much of the conversation centered on finishing.
“He’s very, very big into not making mistakes,” McIlroy said of Nicklaus after the U.S. Open. “It’s nice, you sit down with the most successful player that’s ever lived. For him to say he expects big things from you, that you should embrace the pressure, those are great things to hear from someone like him. To be able to put that into practice so early is a nice feeling.”
Some might say they saw this coming. McIlroy has now finished in the top 10 in five of his past 10 majors. He took third at the 2010 PGA Championship (1 stroke out of a playoff) and British Open (firing a first-round 63). He tied for third at the 2009 PGA and tied for 10th at the ‘09 U.S. Open.
After Congressional, the pressure on McIlroy reached a new level. He’ll be scrutinized not only by the sports media, but also by the tabloid sector. Perhaps having won over the public — on both sides of the Atlantic — will alleviate some of that.
“Every cloud has a silver lining, and I think what happened at Augusta was a great thing for me in terms of support,” McIlroy said after winning the U.S. Open. “At Charlotte, the support was fantastic.”