WHEN Rory McIlroy set out on his life-changing season in January, he did not see his best chance coming at Congressional, the scene of his stunning US Open triumph. Back then, when he was a mere future superstar, he dreamed of the USPGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club.
“I do think this could be the major which suits me best,” he said here yesterday as he finished off his preparations for today’s first round. “At the start of this year when I was looking forward I felt this and the Masters would suit me best.”
McIlroy’s affection for Augusta has raged ever since he was a child, and, in terms of time-span, the love affair with the campaign’s final major is still in the holding hands stage. But in terms of interaction, the relationship has been as steamy as the weather here. McIlroy has played two USPGA Championships and finished third both times, a remarkable beginning for any golfer. If golfers are like horses when it comes to courses then McIlroy could prove to be the USPGA’s Red Rum.
“I like the way the PGA of America sets up their courses,” he said. “It really suits my game; they put a premium on ball-striking. This is a straightforward golf course, nothing is hidden, it’s all out in front of you. You can make a few birdies around the turn and then you’ve just got to hang on for dear life coming in.”
As a gameplan, McIlroy has worked out the Athletic Club to the very last tee. The 22-year-old has recovered his mojo after the madness which broke out following his record week in Washington. Tales about his personal life have rivalled predictions of his greatness in number. He admits struggling to cope in the goldfish bowl, although now he has returned to America, feels able to breathe again.
“JP [Fitzgerald, his caddie] and I were talking at Akron last week and we felt we were back to work, back to do what we were supposed to do. It was a whirlwind after Congressional and it’s nice to feel like you’re back out there and finally focusing on winning golf tournaments again.”
With hindsight, it is blatantly clear it was a case of survival for McIlroy at the Open. The expectation, the interest, the demands... it was all so intense he did well to make the top 25. And then there was the weather. McIlroy was rounded upon when he expressed his dislike for the wind. In truth, he was simply acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of his game. That is why he will resume his US Tour membership and that is why the States will be treated to more and more of his outrageous talent.
“I feel very comfortable in this country,” he said. “It was my decision to come back over here after what happened at the US Open. The reaction at the Masters and then at Congressional makes me feel I’ve got a great relationship with the fans. The reception they give me is like that for an American player.”
Already, Atlanta has hailed him as their guy. The stir he has created has amazed even a backroom staff now acclimatised to the Tigeresque mania. Judging by McIlroy’s mood, they had better prepare for the hype to be raised that much higher. “I’m not sure there’ll be a repeat of Congressional,” he said, with a snigger. “But I drove the ball great last week, I’m hitting it nicely, I got in a really good practice round yesterday and as long as I hole a few putts I’m in with a very good chance.”
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