CHARLOTTE, N.C. – “One (event) in seven (weeks),” smiles Rory McIlroy, correcting a reporter who mistakenly suggested that the Ulsterman had been on a one-week on/six-week off schedule the last month or so.
McIlroy’s Twitter account lists the world No. 2’s location as “everywhere.” Given his status the last few weeks it wouldn’t have been entirely inappropriate to list himself as semi-retired as well.
Consider his odyssey since he clipped Tiger Woods down the stretch at the Honda Classic and tied for 40th at Augusta National: He’s made cameos at the Monte Carlo ATP event, to cheer better half Caroline Wozniacki; attended a rugby match in London where he met Queen Elizabeth; co-starred in a commercial with snowboarding legend Shaun White for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital on Tuesday and, finally, made it back to his day job “chase(ing) a little white ball,” per his Twitter profile.
Amid the hustle and bustle that has become the life of Rory, he ascended to and was ejected from the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking from the comfort of his own couch.
“It’s so volatile,” he said on Wednesday at Quail Hollow, site of this week's Wells Fargo Championship, referring to the ranking but he may as well have been talking about his day planner.
As the 22-year-old goes over his recent itinerary, however, the thought occurs this isn’t a young man avoiding work, as young men do, but instead one planning for a lifetime of it.
Among the more telling comments from McIlroy’s press conference was news he will play about 23 events this year – “And the Ryder Cup,” he said without a hint of presumption – compared to 30 tournaments last year.
“I don’t want to be burned out by the time I’m 30,” he figured. “The most important time for me in the golf season is the start of April and the end of August . . . and for me there is more to life than golf.”
Those who study such things will contend that to be the best in any endeavor takes a single-minded – some would even say selfish – focus on the task at hand and, with a monsoon of respect to alpha males and females in all walks of life, a healthy dollop of indifference – maybe even contempt – for one’s contemporaries.
If that adage holds, McIlroy seems to be wanting on both fronts. Life, however charmed it may be, is to be enjoyed and some have suggested McIlroy may be a little too nice for his own good at times.
But if that’s the case then how does one explain his answer on Wednesday when a scribe asked if he thought there would be a “solid” world No. 1 by the end of the year. “Hope so,” McIlroy smiled, “hope you’re looking at him.”
In this, McIlroy is adept at killing his contemporaries with kindness.
Exhibit A: Two years ago, McIlroy made the cut at Quail Hollow on the number, rallied with a Saturday 66 to start the final turn four back and closed with what many considered a round-of-the-year 62 to beat Phil Mickelson by four strokes.
“Probably the best,” McIlroy said when asked to assess his 10-under-par walk-off. “Under the circumstance, being four back and having to follow a good round on Saturday . . . yeah it was the best.”
Exhibit B: McIlroy opened with rounds of 65-66 last year at Congressional, pulled eight clear on Saturday with a 68 and blew the field away for a historic U.S. Open victory.
In football terms that’s stepping on jugulars. That he did it with a smile only adds to the legend.
“Having a four- or five-shot lead is completely different because there's two ways you can approach it,” McIlroy said, slipping from affable to assassin in the blink of a Northern Irish eye. “You can try and protect your lead, or you can say, okay, I'm four shots ahead, I want to try and go five shots, want to try and go six shots, want to try and go seven.”
It’s that unique combination of calculating competitiveness and talent that prompted Woods’ swing coach Sean Foley to opine: “You could make the argument that he might be Tiger’s Watson.”
That McIlroy’s climb began here at Quail Hollow only serves to magnify that possibility. There have been no shortage of “rivals” throughout the years for Woods, most (see Garcia, Sergio) have not been up to the task; and in truth, Mickelson has been the only player who has been consistent enough to regularly take a seat at that table.
Yet if the stars are aligning as many envision, McIlroy seems to be the player with all the tools, if not the time, to go toe-to-toe with Woods. That he also seems to have the temperament for the long haul should factor into the calculation as well.
When McIlroy bolted Augusta National last month, he left his golf clubs in the United States for two weeks of jet setting, picking up his game in earnest last week in South Florida.
Where some see a lack of focus, McIlroy eyes a long, limitless journey reclaiming the top spot in the world ranking, adding another major tilt to the trophy case and maybe, if the stargazers have it right, that coveted head-to-head with Woods.
Not bad for a semi-retired 22-year-old.