McIlroy back for back-to-back

FEARS that the astonishing focus Rory McIlroy brought to his sublime victory in last month’s US Open might have been mislaid on a three-week flight into celebrity heaven suddenly seemed not just overstated but overwrought here yesterday.

They were, it seemed reasonable to conclude, carried away on a stiff north-easterly.

The 22-year-old Ulsterman, who some are already announcing as the new Tiger Woods, insisted that there will be no fresh fantasising, only an old reality, when he steps into the traditional 9.09am time slot of the currently fallen giant of modern golf at the first tee tomorrow.

He said, in so many easy, unaffected words, that as far he is concerned the 140th Open represents nothing so much as the first days of the rest of his life.

His return to the surface of the earth, he reported, in fact came the night before his arrival here under the grey clouds scudding in from the English Channel and new levels of personal security. It happened back home in County Down, when after the days of Centre Court Royal Box hob-knobbing with the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Robert Redford and Diana Ross, he took a walk into the dusk with his father Gerry at the old golf course that had shaped his life so profoundly.

McIlroy said: “Dad has been a huge influence over my career. Last night we went to Royal County Down and it was just me and him on the golf course, basically no one else, and I played nine holes and he walked around - it was a really nice moment.

“We did the exact same thing last year going into St Andrews. It brought back a lot of memories, playing with my dad, long summer nights, teeing off at at 5[pm] and getting in at 9. I thought how great he was there with me on the course... and it was great to be home.”

Yet even as McIlroy declares that his feet are back in firm contact with the ground after the exhilaration of his extraordinary eight-shot triumph at the Congressional Country Club just down the road from Capitol Hill, he also acknowledges that some things can never be the same.

He knows that his own expectations, just as much as those of the golf world that has greeted his breakthrough with the same level of awe created by the 21-year-old Tiger’s annexing of the US Masters title in 1997, have changed forever.

They were re-shaped and moved into a new dimension by the scale of his triumph in Maryland - and the extent of his recovery from the collapse in Augusta that two months earlier had provoked the fear that he might just have been permanently broken.

“I don’t think I’ll be play that sort of golf [the kind that won the US Open] every week I tee it up - but I hope I do,” he said. “Yeah, expectations are going to be high but I have high expectations myself.

“I want to go out there and try to win a lot of golf tournaments and win majors and become the best player in the world. So everyone’s expectations are high but they can say what they want, they can make the comparisons. All I need to do is focus on my game - and if I can do that I know my good golf is good enough to win plenty more tournaments.”

It is a conviction that is gusting as strong as the wind that last night was making rigid the flags on the 18th-hole grandstand.

Not unnaturally, his hometown coach Michael Bannon, is among the most ferocious believers. He reports that when McIlroy came here last week, finally signalling that the days of celebration were over, he produced golf of a stunning quality. “I watched him for a couple of days,” said Bannon, “and I’ve never seen anything as impressive as the way Rory can strike the ball.

“It’s the purity of the strike. He hits it different. Maybe Tiger Woods and some other great players were similar but I haven’t seen it. It’s the X-factor. It’s not definable. Rory’s swing flows great and there’s rhythm and stability and balance. But the way the ball is coming off the clubface is fantastic. Once I’d watched him played I wouldn’t want to watch anyone else. Maybe I’m biased.”

Bannon has been coaching McIlroy since he was eight years old and his devotion is understandable enough. But then the great Tom Watson, winner of eight majors, who sometimes feels he has been playing for at least a 100 years, is alsodeeply enthusiastic about the beauty and the strength of the McIlroy game.

Watson said yesterday that he saw more than mere striking virtuosity at Congressional. He saw the ability to hold a position, to operate under the most strenuous pressure and this, believes the man from Kansas City, was remarkable after the calamity he found at Augusta National.

“The shot that solidified the win at the US Open was at the third on the Saturday. He hit a bad drive. He had the choice of going for the green or pitching on to the fairway. He came on to the fairway and then hit a wedge to three feet and made par. That was good for his nerves. I know. I made a lot of Watson pars in that situation.”

For Watson, this was an outstanding young golfer thinking his way to his first major success, crossing the line that is sometimes drawn against the ambitions of even the most talented of players.

Yesterday McIlroy agreed that such moments were the stepping stones to a new level of self-belief - a new sense that a major obstacle has been removed.

“It means,” he said, “I don’t have to answer that question [about winning his first major] every time I come to a tournament whereas a lot of guys still do, you know. So it has lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. Now I can talk about winning my second major after having won the first.”

He may not have intended rapier thrusts into the morale of his Ryder Cup team-mates Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, the world’s No 1- and No 2-ranked players who still pine for the sensation that McIlroy brought home from America, but there was here, certainly, the picture of a competitor who had moved on to new terrain.

“Even though I felt it was coming for a long time,” he said, “it was still great to get it done, out of the way, so I could focus on getting more wins.

“It’s quite hard to stay anonymous these days, but it’s not such a bad thing. I’ve had some enjoyable days and if that’s the worst thing I’m complaining about, then I’m doing something right.”

He was asked about the heavy support he is receiving at the betting window, including reports of two (pounds sterling)20,000 wagers, the tide of belief lapping around him on this turbulent day of his return to the serious business of his life, and someone wondered if it was possible for the public’s expectations to be higher than his own.

“I don’t think so,” said the man who was reporting back for serious duty. The celebrity life could wait, at least for a few days.