Rory McIlroy: Q&A

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Rory talks about his epic year and 2012.

Rory McIlroy will look back on 2011 as the year his life changed completely. In this exclusive interview, he reflects on how he’s grown up over the past 12 months and looks forward to 2012.

Few will forget the shocking moments on the 10th hole at Augusta last April. He lead by one as he walked onto the tee, but then pull-hooked his drive into the pine trees, hacked his way to a triple bogey and his round began to unravel. He shot 80, and finished tied for 15th.

Many observers thought the experience would scar the young Irishman for years. So the way he took that defeat on the chin, and came back eight weeks later to blow the US Open fi eld away at Congressional – and win his first Major Championship by eight shots – was almost unbelievable.

And it’s not just on the course where he has been turning heads. He broke up with his childhood sweetheart, Holly Sweeney in the summer, and now goes out with a Danish girl called Caroline Wozniacki; who also just so happens to be the world’s best tennis player. He also left Chubby Chandler, his erstwhile manager at International Sports Management to join a small, Dublin-based company called Horizon.

Expectations about what will unfold in the next 12 months have reached fever pitch. In the eight events leading up to the Dubai World Championship, Rory won twice and didn’t finish worse than fourth. Most golf fans are drooling at the prospect of the new season; and so is the man himself...

Looking forward to taking on Tiger in 2012? Of course. You want to test yourself against the best and if I was to come up against Tiger on a Sunday, it would probably be the biggest challenge of my career obviously. It’s something I would look forward to. It would be a huge experience and a learning curve for me just to see how I would handle it. But it’s not something that I have experienced, and it’s not something that a lot of players in my generation have experienced yet. It would just be great to have the opportunity to do it at some point.

OK, last round at the Masters, would you rather go head-to-head with Tiger, or be well clear like at the US Open? Be well clear! (Laughs) Tiger’s record round there, no matter what his game is like, he’s favourite; and that’s only right. I only want to give myself a chance. If I have to beat him in the fi nal round to do it, I’ll go out and try. But that’s the same with whoever it is, Luke Donald or whoever.

Good to see Tiger winning again? It’s great to see Tiger back. And even the way he won (at the Chevron World Challenge in December) was very impressive, birdieing the last two holes when he needed to. You saw by his reaction on the 18th how much that meant to him.

What do you think Tiger will be like in 2012? That instinct and that will to win whenever you have to – he’s done it so many times before. It looks like his game is really getting back in shape.

Looks like 2012 could be a stellar year. Yeah. With Tiger back and Lee playing well and Luke coming off his best season ever, it looks like 2012 is going to be exciting. I’m just very happy to be involved in that group and with a chance to win more tournaments and hopefully Majors as well.

What are your goals? It’s hard to set goals like I want to win a Major and win the Order of Merit. You have to concentrate on the process. At the start of 2011 I had a few goals – to cement my place in the world’s top fi ve. I started the year at seven (finished at two). To win more tournaments. I had only won twice. I was able to win three times in 2011. Winning my first Major was a huge achievement. The goal now is to become a multiple Major winner.

Do you feel the buzz that follows you around these days? I can’t feel it from inside. I’m just going about my business, trying to be the best player I can be. I can’t feel the sense of anticipation of me turning up to an event.

Are you surprised you have become such a big star and brand? Yeah, of course. Why me? I don’t know. Is it who I go out with? What I do on the course? My afro? (Laughs). I seriously don’t know. As long as I nurture my golf game, I’ll let other people try to nurture Rory the brand, or whatever you want to call it.

Do you discuss these things with Caroline [Wozniacki]? No, we’ve got to the stage where we just talk about the things that all couples talk about. We both understand we’re not going to see each other every week of the year. Tennis careers are much shorter than golf careers. They have to put everything into it. She definitely works harder than I do. Probably works harder than most girls on tour. That’s been a great influence on my career, her dedication. She understands the lifestyle so that definitely helps. We try to stay in touch as much as possible and spend a lot of time on our iPhones. It’s nice to go out with someone who shares your ambition.

What did you learn most from your Masters meltdown? I had a lot of time between getting up on Sunday and going out to play. Ulster were playing in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and I watched that. But there was still time to kill. I remember if I turned on ESPN I was on TV. If I turned on Golf Channel, all I could hear were people talking about me. I learned after that not to watch television, or go on Twitter or anything like that. Something Greg Norman said to me after the Masters was that any little outside influence you let into your bubble can be detrimental. You can pick up a newspaper and read it but if you see an article about yourself you have to have a lot of self-discipline not to read it. That’s what I will try to do from now on.

But you are now living life in a bubble. This is your life now. It’s been a big change. A huge change. I can’t do the same things as I did a year ago. It’s something I’m conscious of.

Is it a shame? I’m not sad about it. It’s fine. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices if you want to progress in your career. So I see less Man United games or Ulster games. It’s not a big deal in the scheme of things. That’s what I’ve got to do – not let outside things distract me.

Are you comfortable living in the bubble? Pretty much. This has been a learning curve. It’s no longer just mad about the Masters but pretty much every round I play. I have to get used to it.

You must still be thrilled by the way you bounced back after the Masters to win the US Open. I’ve had rounds where I’ve felt under control, but not like that for the whole week. Everything clicked into place. I had a good finish at the Memorial, good practice rounds at Congressional and felt the course suited me. And going to Haiti with UNICEF the week before did give me more perspective. It is my life and I want to be the best I can be, but even if it doesn’t work out, I am still very lucky to do what I do. I feel honoured to play in front of lots of people every week. People wanting you to do well.

Did you have doubts on the Sunday of the US Open? Of course. There always will be. But one of the big differences was having dad there (Gerry wasn’t at the Masters), having breakfast with him on Sunday, talking it through. He said the right things – ‘you’ve played so well for three rounds’, ‘keep doing what you’re doing’, ‘concentrate on what you can do in your own little bubble’. It was important it was said by dad, who knows me better than anyone. It was more reassuring from him than a sports psychologist.

After what happened to you at the Masters, did you have to rebuild your confi dence for the US Open? Part of the motivation was trying to prove a lot of people wrong, and to prove something to myself. That I wasn’t one of those players who crumbles under the pressure, who folds, or chokes. I hate using the word choke but that’s exactly what happened at the Masters. I had a lot of motivation! I wanted to prove that the person the critics saw on the Sunday at Augusta was not the real Rory McIlroy. Putting was the thing I knew I needed to improve. That’s why I went to see Dave Stockton. He was a big help. If I’d putted well the first three days (at the Masters) I would have been out of sight.

Looking forward to having another go then? I definitely feel I can win there. It would be great to have a chance. What happened at Augusta won’t happen again. I’d like to banish the demons, even though there aren’t many. I might even have a look at the cabin (laughs).

Would you rather win a Major than be No.1? The four Majors grab the attention of the public. The Majors are the tournaments they all watch. But that doesn’t take away from what Luke has achieved. The way he has been playing, a Major is not far away. Same with Lee (Westwood). I’d rather win a Major but getting the No.1 ranking is something I want to do. It will be evidence I’ve improved.

Was 2011 the year you grew up? Yes, defi nitely. From the disappointment at the Masters to coming back to win the US Open. The elation of that. Going to Haiti with UNICEF. Things I haven’t had to deal with before like the public becoming interested in my personal life.