JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Rory McIlroy is glad to be back at work, especially after the last two months.
McIlroy said during a press conference Wednesday at the PGA Championship that it’s been a steady stream of photo shoots, celebrity gossip and attention since his U.S. Open victory last June.
The 22-year-old with the tight, dark curls from Northern Ireland became a worldwide sensation after rebounding from a final-round collapse at the Masters with his runaway win at Congressional Country Club where he set a the U.S. Open scoring record at 16-under 268.
McIlroy instantly became golf’s new rising star, with his movements tracked on Twitter and people blogging that he was certainly heir apparent to Tiger Woods’ championship legacy. Even McIlroy’s recent friendship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki had the Internet ablaze with speculation about their status.
All of it took the focus off McIlroy’s golf. That changed, he said, with last week’s showing, a tie for sixth at the World Golf Championship’s Bridgestone Invitational.
“It was a little bit of a whirlwind after what happened at Congressional,” McIlroy said. “But it’s nice to feel like you’re back out there and finally working hard again.”
McIlroy couldn’t pick a better time to re-hone his game. He tied for third at the last two PGA Championships and said it may be the major that best fits his talents.
“I love how the PGA of America set the golf course up at this event,” he said. “I think it really suits my game, puts a premium on ball-striking.”
It’s probably a relief for McIlroy to concentrate on golf. It’s one thing to play out sinking the winning birdie putt on the 18th hole at Augusta National and quite another to live out the experience at 22, McIlroy said.
As a teenager on the range, “all you think about is the golf, and you think about how great it is to hopefully be one of the best players in the world,” McIlroy said. “And you never really think of the other side of it, the attention, the spotlight.”
McIlroy’s learning about the other side.
He’s said he’s had fans show up at his home in Northern Ireland at all hours, prompting regular security at times. He told a critic at the Irish Open to “Shut up” on Twitter after harsh comments about his caddie, JP Fitzgerald.
It’s been reported that McIlroy’s choice to play more events on the PGA Tour next year was an escape from the attention, a chance to play somewhere his life wouldn’t be subject to round-the-clock scrutiny.
McIlroy said the decision about 2012 is in the best interest of his career. It doesn’t hurt that American fans have embraced him like one of their own. They stood several deep outside the clubhouse here Tuesday when McIlroy came out, children shrieking his name for an autograph.
“I get a great response from the crowds,” he said. “I feel like the reception I get over here is like an American player. It’s nice to have.”
A successful week at the Atlanta Athletic Club would certainly speed up the fourth-ranked McIlroy’s rise to the top both here and abroad.
McIlroy’s already shown the grit to recover from disappointment. He said he now relies on himself after his disappointing Masters finish - McIlroy shot 80 after entering the final round with a four-shot lead - and not change who he was to suit the moment.
“I felt as if I was a completely different person on that Sunday at Augusta and I didn’t need to be,” he said. “I didn’t need to change. I didn’t need to be more focused. I didn’t need to concentrate more.”
McIlroy has maintained that perspective at the year’s final major. He’s gotten in some solid practice and is ready for the heat, moreso than the changing weather McIlroy decried at last month’s British Open, saying he preferred warmer conditions to the rain and wind at Royal St. George’s. “Who wouldn’t like to play in warmer weather?” he said Wednesday.
Not that McIlroy will have it easy with a field that’s packed with the world’s best, all eager to end the season with a major title. “There’s a little bit of added tension there, a little bit more anxiety to try and perform well,” said Luke Donald, the world’s top-ranked golfer.
McIlroy feels fresh and ready to stamp the 2011 season as his own with a second major. He’s also ready for the extra attention that will bring to his life in the spotlight.
“It’s part of my life now and something I’ll definitely have to get used to,” McIlroy said. “But it’s definitely better this way than no one wanting to know what you’re up to.”