McIlroy didn’t have to work hard to say the right things or transmit the right vibe. His golf ball seemed to spend hours in the air, but his feet were firmly on the ground, his phony needle stuck on empty. All that may not help you shoot lower scores, but it will come in handy when dealing with the attention that comes with those low numbers.
Ten years earlier, I’d seen Sergio Garcia make a huge splash in his U.S. debut, finishing T-3 in Dallas, smiling like a prom queen, glowing amid the adulation that comes with playing the role of golf’s fresh young phenom. Now he’s fast becoming the can’t-miss kid who did, or at the very least, a player whose career is trending in a ultra-discouraging direction. Perhaps just as sadly, Sergio’s effervescent personality has been flattened by a decade of failure and a penchant for self-pity, a combination that frequently brings the cart and the horse into play.
Charles Howell III, Adam Scott, Aaron Baddeley – the list of those who have fallen 4 down to the weight of expectations during the Woods dynasty is not getting any shorter, which takes us back to McIlroy. He is the rarest of combinations: a player with the polished fundamentals of Scott and the enviable touch Garcia once had. For all the ex-young guns who can make eight birdies but can’t get up and down, McIlroy’s short game is among his strongest assets.
Still, talent accounts for no more than 30 to 40 percent of greatness. One victory won’t buy you a berth in the World Golf Hall of Fame, but McIlroy’s first U.S. triumph was the work of a player with special qualities. To shoot a 62 in the final round on a course as tough as Quail Hollow – against the best field we’ll see all year at a non-major — is heady stuff. To win the tournament after making the cut on the number is almost absurd, especially with so many premium players. To roar to the top of a leader board that includes Phil Mickelson and Angel Cabrera and hit nothing but spectacular shots down the stretch is what superstars do, even if they’re still serving their apprenticeship.
He made the cut at all four majors in 2009, his best coming at the PGA Championship – third behind Y.E. Yang and Woods. McIlroy’s only major finish outside the top 20 came at the British Open. At this time last year, the plan was for McIlroy to play full-time in Europe, but after 11 starts and $849,719 in America, the kid realized he couldn’t beat any of the world’s best players while parked on that side of the ocean.
Garcia had come to the same conclusion, and for the better part of those 10 years, things went swimmingly over here, but Sergio never really found a home in the U.S. He flew back to Spain the way some people drive to the other side of town, except Spain is a lot further, and in a game where two or three strokes a week can be the difference between success and a mess, a player needs roots. A few ounces of common sense never killed anybody, either.
McIlroy turns 21 on Tuesday, and if this crazy game merely laughs at the notion of guaranteed stardom, his brilliant future and resilient present are charging toward each other at full gallop. That fabulous finishing kick at Quail Hollow, which actually lasted about 36 holes, was the kind of performance only special players can produce, and McIlroy is indeed special. If the ungrounded Garcia has become the how-not-to template on matters involving disruption of the Woods Dynasty, the wide-eyed lad from Holywood seems to understand the difference between the promised land and the land of promise.
That’s Holywood, Northern Ireland. Not the one in California.