MARANA, Ariz. – The first time Harry met Rory, things didn’t go to plan.
It was two years ago next week when young Harris English, some six events into his PGA Tour career, climbed to the first tee at PGA National for a Sunday shootout with golf’s new prince, Rory McIlroy.
Had that Sunday pairing been a match-play ordeal, McIlroy would have rolled over the rookie, 4 and 3. The stroke-play line wasn’t any better with McIlroy – who ascended to No. 1 in the world with his victory at the Honda Classic – carding a 69 to English’s 77 that included three double bogeys and three bogeys.
“I wasn’t mad,” English recalled of his Sunday swoon, “it was more disappointment. I felt like I was ready for the moment, but it seemed like everything was moving so fast and I couldn’t control it.”
By comparison English’s Round 2 match at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship against McIlroy on Thursday felt like super slow motion. From the first tee the tall Georgia native looked at ease, almost aloof.
If every match at the Match Play comes complete with Sunday pressure, as the company line goes at Dove Mountain, it appeared as though that fourth round in 2012 in south Florida was much more than 24 months and a few hundred miles away.
English never trailed at the Match Play, turning in 2 under with a 1-up advantage, and arrived at the 14th tee 2 up when Rory, being Rory, ripped off three consecutive birdies – including a 4-iron to 4 feet at the 16th that English called “unbelievable.”
The two traded pars at Nos. 17 and 18 to force overtime until English, the man who wilted under the glare at PGA National, made a gritty par at the first extra hole to advance and amend that dark Sunday in 2012.
Over the last two calendars English has grown, both competitively and psychologically, winning twice on Tour and establishing himself as a five-tool player.
“I asked him what he learned at the Honda Classic and he said, ‘I have to belong out there. I need to play my game,’” said Mike Taylor, English’s Sea Island, Ga.-based swing coach. “That was his first opportunity to be in the mix and in the last group and he felt like he needed to fit in and now he does.”
Even McIlroy, who has done a fair bit of growing of his own over the last 12 months, acknowledged how far English has come since 2012.
“He’s a couple years more experienced and he’s a very solid player and doesn’t do a lot wrong,” McIlroy said. “Experience counts for an awful lot and he’s used to playing with his peers now as opposed to a couple years ago when he wasn’t that comfortable.”
When it comes to these two, age is relative. Although they are both 24 years old, and two of only three players under 25 to have multiple Tour wins, McIlroy and English are viewed in a vastly different light and justifiably so.
The Ulsterman has won two majors by a combined 16 strokes and after a difficult 2013 appears poised to return to the top of golf’s marquee, while English is still very much an unknown commodity to many fans.
But that has been changing over the last year. At the urging of Jimmy Johnson, Steve Stricker’s caddie, English added veteran looper Brian Smith to his team last season and has continued to refine his game despite his success, the ultimate sign of progress for a young, successful player.
Taylor, who worked with English last week, said his short game and wedge play have greatly improved and, unlike that fateful day at the ’12 Honda Classic, he now has a “go to” shot off the tee when the pressure is on.
“Choke up on the club a little, tee it low and swing left,” smiled English. “It’s a little cut and I didn’t have that at the Honda. Sometimes you don’t have your A-game and you need something.”
It was the shot English used on the first extra hole, which was playing into the wind. Although he narrowly missed the fairway on the 19th hole, English was able to put himself in position to make a relatively easy par while McIlroy pulled his approach into the desert, airmailed the green with his third shot and made the conclusion stress-free for English.
Even compared to Thursday’s faux Sunday pressure at Dove Mountain, English acknowledged how far he has come since the last time he went head to head with McIlroy.
“I feel I belong now. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into back then. I knew I could do it but I didn’t know how to finish it off,” said English, who will play Jim Furyk in Round 3 on Friday. “I’ve learned so much about myself and how to handle certain situations. How to breathe better and eat better, just little things.”
He would never say it himself, but there has been nothing little about English’s climb from PGA National to Dove Mountain.