SHANGHAI – The smattering of conversations suddenly gave way to the constant shutters of cameras at Le Meridien hotel, and there was no mistaking who was causing all the commotion on Wednesday.
U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy could barely make his way across the room without being stopped. He stood tall as he posed with a Chinese businessman, and stooped over for another picture with a young girl, smiles everywhere. At his side was Caroline Wozniacki, the No. 1 player in women’s tennis and the girlfriend of golf’s newest star.
McIlroy wasn’t bothered by all the attention. As he said earlier Wednesday before a room packed with reporters at the HSBC Champions, it comes with his expanding territory.
Only now, the fuss is for more than just his golf.
It already has been a long year for McIlroy, who now embarks on a sprint to the finish when he tees off on Thursday in the final World Golf Championship of the year.
On the course, he went from a Sunday meltdown at the Masters to blow a four-shot lead to an overwhelming performance in the U.S. Open at Congressional, where he won his first major and shattered the scoring record in an eight-shot win.
Off the course, he is part of sport’s new power couple – “WozIlroy” – and then really caused a sensation when he chose to leave longtime agent Chubby Chandler of International Sports Management to join Horizon Sports Management, a Dublin agency that represents good friend and fellow U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell.
“It’s been an interesting year,” McIlroy said. “A lot has happened. There’s been incredible highs and the one very disappointing low. But I think that disappointing low was needed to experience the incredible high of Congressional. So it’s been a great year. When I get a chance to reflect on it over Christmas and the new year, it’s been a fantastic year and I wouldn’t take it back.”
The reflection can wait.
McIlroy won’t get into specifics over why he left Chandler, only that he wants to concentrate on winning tournaments. Chandler raised the notion that Wozniacki had become a big influence on him, while Lee Westwood tweeted that the move was “bizarre.”
In his first tournament since the split, McIlroy opened with a 64 against a world-class field last week in the unofficial Shanghai Masters, then beat Anthony Kim in a playoff to win $2 million, the richest payoff of any tournament in the world.
He can only hope that serves as a springboard toward a spectacular finish.
McIlroy is about $1.8 million behind Luke Donald on the European Tour money list going into the final month of the season. Donald, who won the PGA Tour money list by closing with a 64 to win at Disney World two weeks ago, was unable to play the HSBC Champions because his wife is expecting their second child.
Winning at Sheshan International comes with a $1.2 million check, which could make a big dent in the deficit as players make their way to the season-ending Dubai World Championship.
“With him not being here this week … I feel like I’ve got a chance to cut into the lead a little bit,” McIlroy said after enduring a steady rain in the pro-am. “It would be fantastic to get another win, the second win in two weeks, and cut into that lead. But it’s such a strong field here, and there’s a lot of guys with a chance to win.”
Missing from the field is Tiger Woods, winless in two years and ineligible for the first time at a WGC. Phil Mickelson, a two-time winner of the HSBC Champions, chose to stay home with family before consecutive weeks in the Singapore Open and Presidents Cup. Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Steve Stricker and Webb Simpson aren’t playing.
Even so, the field remains strong with a heavy influence of European players and enough PGA Tour players – Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan, FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas and all four major champions – that there will be no shortage of challengers.
And it’s meaningful for plenty of these players, such as PGA champion Keegan Bradley. The HSBC Champions counts on the PGA Tour if one of its members wins, and that would give Bradley a Tour-leading three wins this year, including a major.
No one argues that Donald has had the best year – not Bradley, not even McIlroy – although the PGA Tour delayed sending out the awards ballots until after this week.
“Luke Donald has had such a great year,” Bradley said. “I think it would be difficult to beat him. But I definitely think a win would help.”
It’s been a great year, and certainly a memorable one, for McIlroy.
First came his collapse at Augusta National, where he shot 80 in the final round to blow a four-shot lead. That was followed by a flawless performance at the U.S. Open to capture his first major. He stumbled at the British Open, on the links and after his round when he complained about too much wind, and he had a jarring moment at the PGA Championship when he tried to hit a 7-iron through a tree root and injured his right arm.
McIlroy recovered, and he has not finished worse than third since the PGA Championship. Meanwhile, his star power grows. He first noticed that a month after the U.S. Open, when he walked into a press conference at Royal St. George’s and saw every seat occupied, with a dozen or so reporters lined up against the wall.
“It was the first time I had really addressed the media after Congressional, and it was a bit of a shock to me, to be honest,” McIlroy said. “I feel as if I’m learning to deal with it a little better, and it’s quite an adjustment to make. But that’s just part and parcel of what we do. And I’m very glad to be in this position, very glad that people are interested in me.”