Rory McIlroy, the new PGA Championship winner, and by eight shots, was 20 years old and ranked number nine in the world when he had lunch with Jack Nicklaus at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla. McIlroy picked the brain of the man who had won 18 majors and who thought his way around a golf course better than anybody, perhaps, in the history of the game. McIlroy pronounced the meeting as the “best 90 minutes” he had ever spent.
That was in March, 2010, and, 13 months later, the preternaturally gifted young man from Holywood, Northern Ireland took a four-shot lead into the final round of the Masters. He shot 80 that round, and concerns were raised that he would not recover successfully from that experience and win the majors that he seemed destined to win. McIlroy took the loss gracefully, and three months later he won the U.S. Open by eight shots.
Still, that did not quell the doubters. Doubts about his desire, in particular, were heard even after McIlroy won the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. last March. He one-putted the last five holes as Tiger Woods was throwing a 62 at him to tie for second, two shots behind McIlroy. But McIlroy then tied for 40th in the Masters, missed the cut in the U.S. Open, and tied for 60th in last month’s Open Championship.
Was he living too much of the good life in the company of Caroline Wozniacki, the tennis star and former world number one ranked player? Why, too, had he split last year from his long-time agent Andrew “Chubby” Chandler, and moved on to Dublin-based Horizon Sports Management? There he joined his fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion.
McIlroy heard the questions, but, although he was only 23, he was mature enough to not let himself be bothered. He was mature enough to know that golf is, well, golf. He found something in his swing at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio the week before the PGA, and tied for fifth there. McIlroy came into the PGA at the difficult Ocean Course in Kiawah Island, S.C. feeling positive about his game.
Then he blew away the field by eight shots, as he had when he won the U.S. Open. He swung with the rhythm and controlled power of Bobby Jones, who won 13 majors between 1923 and 1930. The majors then comprised the U.S. and British Opens and Amateurs. Jones won the Grand Slam in 1930, and after he did that he retired from competitive golf. He was all of 28 years old.
It would be ludicrous in the excitement of McIlroy’s second dominant performance in winning his second major to suggest he could one day win the modern Grand Slam of the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship. But is there any golfer just now who appears to be capable of reaching that pinnacle?
It is important to be cautious here. Many golf pundits who should have known better were saying after McIlroy won the 2011 U.S. Open by those eight shots that he would become the “next” Tiger Woods. McIlroy emphasized he wanted only to be the best he could, and to reach his own potential. There was, and is, only one Tiger Woods. McDowell said Sunday after the PGA’s conclusion that Woods is a once in a lifetime player, and that McIlroy is more like a “once in a decade” player. He may prove better than that, to be sure.
The predictions that McIlroy would be the next Woods quieted down after he played poorly in the three majors that preceded the PGA Championship. Woods spoke about McIlroy after shooting 72 in the final round Sunday to tie for 11th, 11 shots behind the new champion.
“He went through a little spell this year, and that was good for him,” Woods said. “This is the way he can play. When he gets it going, it’s pretty impressive to watch.”
McIlroy’s play certainly was impressive to watch. He had it all when it mattered: a powerful, accurate long game; approach shots where he didn’t short-side himself; a deft short game; and putting to match.
The great instructor Percy Boomer wrote in his seminal book On Learning Golf published in 1942, that “Rhythm is the soul of golf.” McIlroy, now the number-one ranked golfer in the world, embodies this notion when he is on form.
Boomer also wrote, “When we watch a really good golfer we are impressed, of course, by the beauty of his swing, but perhaps even more by the sensation of prolonged effortless flight which his shots produce on us.”
If Boomer were alive today, he would love McIlroy’s game. He would feel that “sensation of prolonged effortless flight,” and he would know that Rory McIlroy at his best is something special. He would know that McIlroy at his best turns golf into a beautiful game. He did exactly that while winning the PGA Championship.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein