PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – As Rory McIlroy’s manager Chubby Chandler made his way down the TPC Sawgrass practice tee on Wednesday we couldn’t resist: How was the party?
“A hell of a lot of fun,” he smiled, referring to the 21st birthday/first PGA Tour title shindig at Lulu’s Waterfront Grille near TPC Sawgrass for the young Northern Irishman on Tuesday.
The same could be said for golf lately.
The combination of a down economy and a superstar that has been down and out since Nov. 27 had cast a pall over the golf world for the better part of a young season, but a B-12 shot of young and old have rejuvenated the game like few thought possible in recent weeks.
Phil Mickelson’s Masters moment left few with a dry eye or a steady pulse less than a month ago, and McIlroy’s four-shot walk-over at Charlotte’s mid-major matched the hype, a rarity in a game that tends to award star status based on potential more so than practical application.
There was a lot of water-cooler talk on the TPC practice tee over which accomplishment was more impressive, McIlroy’s closing 62 or Ryo Ishikawa’s final-round 58 to win the Japan Tour’s Crowns tournament? Chandler, hardly an impartial bystander, said it best.
“They are both amazing rounds, aren’t they?” he said. “It’s good for golf, that’s the important thing. You really can’t compare the two.”
No, you can’t compare the two. One was played on a 7,400-yard, par-72 behemoth against a world class field with the weight of an entire nation weighing heavily on young shoulders. The other came against a field of understudies on a 6,545-yard, par-70 layout that, although widely applauded as a fine track, will never be confused for a major championship venue.
It’s hard to say who needed the Quail Hollow clinic more, McIlroy or golf?
If golf is at its best when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are going head-to-head, it proved downright entertaining last week. Lament the early exit of Woods last week all you want, if McIlory’s 62 didn’t get the blood flowing you should seek medical attention.
For McIlory, however, the victory was the tonic for a 400-pound gorilla that was getting heavier with each pedestrian week, with each missed cut.
Before Quail Hollow McIlory’s best U.S. finish in a stroke-play event was 40th, and his decision to take up PGA Tour membership this year was starting to appear premature if not problematic.
No one knew this more than Padraig Harrington. Although he’s from the other side of the Irish tracks he knows the pressure of unfulfilled expectations, be they self-imposed or otherwise.
“He wasn't contending, wasn't winning,” said Harrington late Sunday at Quail Hollow where he’d lingered to congratulate a player nearly half his age. “It's a lot of pressure on him, a lot of focus on him at home, and it's putting him under enormous pressure to deliver, and obviously every week that he doesn't deliver, it's getting on him.”
Five events into a rookie campaign is hardly a complete sample, but when you’ve been dubbed the next world-beater-in-waiting back-to-back missed cuts, like McIlory suffered before arriving in North Carolina, can do strange things to a 20-year-old psyche.
Interesting then that the simple thought that got him back on track is the one thing one would expect a 20 year old to have plenty of: “Just going out and playing like you’re a kid again. Go, hit it, find it. Hit it, find it again. Hole the putt, go to the next tee. Just really look forward to hitting the next shot.”
Swing gurus call that “caveman golf,” and it is good advice for anyone playing this week’s Players Championship, particularly a someone like McIlory who missed the cut in his first start at TPC Sawgrass last year.
On Sunday McIlroy called it the “zone,” but those who watched the Northern Irishman make quick work of Quail Hollow figured it’s something closer to a “fun zone.”
“It looks like he’s having fun again,” Chandler smiled.
The same could be said for golf these days.