The scene is NikeTown on Oxford Street in the heart of London, and the reason a large crowd is huddled round the store’s new golf simulator is that the world No.1 is drilling mid-iron shots into a net.
“I’ve got a 6-iron, that should go 190 yards,” suggests Rory McIlroy, who is miked up so he can address an audience who are hanging on every word and every strike. It goes an astonishing 204, and the crowd tease the Northern Irishman at the discrepancy with his prediction with an audible groan. “It carried 190!” snaps back McIlroy with a smile. “What distance do you want me to hit it?” he asks, leaning forward for another ball. “192,” someone shouts.
McIlroy does not flinch. Two extra yards? Two! He thinks – or rather, he expects – he is able to simply add on precisely two extra yards. And that despite him being entangled with as many wires as his pop star friend Niall Horan is when he’s on stage, and having flown through the night to be in London after his runaway win at Quail Hollow. It goes 194. McIlroy looks a bit perplexed at being two yards out – and expression which suggests he hit it how he wanted to – but laughs off the audience’s faux disappointment.
As well as confirming just what a talent he is – and TG was fortunate to have a box seat three yards away to enjoy the phenomenal sound of his strikes – the hour in NikeTown also reveals both how unaffected by fame McIlroy remains and how eager he is to genuinely entertain a store full of captivated golfers. The 26-year-old appears unencumbered by his status as a superstar. Content with it, actually.
The terrific Nike Golf TV advert – the ‘Ripple Effect’ – of him worshipping Tiger Woods as a kid is played on a large screen before his entry, and it is still possible to see the little boy from the commercial in the global star holding court before us – especially without a cap on and casually dressed in jeans, t-shirt and Nike trainers. It perhaps explains why he remains so easy to like, with the same cherubic, boy-next-door look he had eight years ago when he won the Silver Medal at The Open, and even just four years ago when he won his first major at Congressional.
The face is not as full and the upper body notably more robust, but the same authentic smile and engaging manner is evident, none more so than when a youngster who took up the game (and made his family do likewise) after high-fiving McIlroy at the Irish Open is introduced. McIlroy’s pleasure at having inspired the boy was palpable. He can probably see himself in the kid and knows what meeting his hero (again) would have meant to him.
Indeed, one suspects McIlroy is at times slightly bewildered at all the attention. He probably still thinks of himself as the wee boy from Holywood who just happened to find playing golf easier than mastering algebra or swotting up on history lessons.
Yet, a bit like his attacking game itself, McIlroy’s career has so far never been either mundane or predictable. It is easy, for example, to forget that little more than a year ago he was on the verge of dropping out of the world’s top 10. With off-the-course headaches to deal with, prior to the 2014 BMW PGA he had only won once in the previous 18 months – at the Australian Open.
Today, he has seven titles in 24 events. In only four of those did he finish outside the top 20. Well over half were top 10s. He missed just two cuts. It is a relentless period of form, capped by consecutive Majors last summer. The day before our privileged access to him at Nike Golf’s London event, his emphatic victory at Quail Hollow confirmed the ‘rivalry’ with Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler is something the media and public want to see, rather than something that actually exists. When McIlroy is at his best, he wins.
When we spoke, he opened up about everything from growing the game to being in the zone and ‘the guy’. (This interview took place before McIlroy injured his ankle playing football and had to withdraw from this year's Open).
Golf is trying to become more cool and boost its participation, so as a global sports brand, is Nike Golf well placed to help do that?
I think so, because it’s such a big sports brand and can pull consumers in from other sports that are already fans of the gear. You can make golf cooler and appeal to more people, but there are a few other things we can do, too. With all the options we have for leisure time today, people just don’t have the time they used to. Making golf a little quicker – and even a shorter version of the game – will help get participation numbers back up.
You have worn Nike gear from an early age, so presumably you felt the brand was the most cool as a kid, too?
Back then it was cooler to wear a Nike cap because that’s what Tiger wore! I was a massive fan of Tiger so I was a massive fan of Nike. Tiger was doing all these great things on the golf course so I was looking up to that, and naturally I wanted to wear the things he was wearing. Everyone knows I idolised Tiger growing up. I wanted to basically do everything that he was doing in the game. He was a huge inspiration for me. Now to be competing against him and to be sort of taking over where he was is a nice feeling. I still have a long way to go to achieve the things he has achieved in his career, but I feel like I am on the right track – and I am just getting started. It’s really cool that we live quite close to each other in Florida now, so to be able to spend some time with each now and again is nice. He’s getting back there, he is working back after getting healthy again and so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him contend again this year.
Does filling Tiger’s shoes bring extra pressure?
I’ve never said I wanted to emulate Tiger or live up to his records, but I feel like I am in a position now where I can influence the younger generation in a way, and of course I love to be that guy in golf that kids look up to. I remember the effect my idol had on me so to think I am in a position like that – to inspire the next generation to pick up the game – is nice. It is a responsibility for me, but it’s a privilege to be in this position and I take it very seriously. At the start I did feel the pressure [of being the main man] a little bit. I had to get used to being the favourite going into tournaments but now I am used to being expected to win and play well. I expect these things from myself so I don’t notice it now.
How did your admiration for Tiger manifest itself as a kid?
I watched him a lot on TV obviously but he also brought out a book in 2000 called ‘How I Play Golf’ and that was basically my bible for a few years. I read that a lot as I was travelling around Ireland. I don’t want to say I modelled my swing on Tiger, but he was a big inspiration and it’s one of the reasons I am a Nike athlete now and a big fan of the brand.
When you joined Nike, your results weren’t as good as they had been... Did you feel guilty that you weren’t delivering?
It was just bad timing. I wasn’t swinging at my best and it combined with trying to adjust to new equipment. There was a teething period for six or nine months, but once my swing got in the right place I felt more comfortable. I always knew there would be a period of adjustment but I was maybe just a bit naive beforehand, thinking it would be three months but it probably just took a little bit longer. But it has been well worth it; if you look at how I’ve played since 2013, it is the best stretch of golf in my life. In that period I’ve won two Majors, two World Golf Championships and so on, so it’s all been worth it. I didn’t feel guilty though, I don’t think you can ever feel like that. You just think about trying to regain your form. I definitely wouldn’t be guilty about people expecting me to play better golf.
It’s the eve of the 2014 BMW PGA, you’re still not quite on top form and your personal life is making headlines... Did you expect to win two of the next three Majors?
No! No. In a way it helped me focus on golf and that is all I really did focus on – and what I only focus on now anyway. I rededicated myself after that and found more time to practise and play, and I started to enjoy playing a lot again and being on tour. And it has paid off. Back in 2012, when I got to world No.1, I felt like I got a little bit complacent and had to rededicate myself a little bit. Having fallen into that trap before, now that I’m in this position I’ll realise if I ever get in that mindset again.
Last time at St Andrews you shot a course record 63. When you are compiling that kind of score – and one like your 61 at Quail Hollow in May – is that what sports people describe as being ‘in the zone’?
There is something. I wouldn’t say it is a trance, but there is a different feeling when you get into that mindset. All it is is positive thought after positive thought. You just let yourself go and just do it; you’re not over-thinking or letting negative thoughts or doubts creep into your mind. You’re just looking at the flag, hitting it at it, reading the putt, seeing the putt perfectly and hitting it. The round gathers momentum as you go on and I’ve been lucky to have had it in my career a few times. It’s a good feeling!
And how do you get out of the opposite scenario, when you are playing badly and all you can see are trees, water and bunkers?
Yep, it’s exactly the same thing but in reverse – instead of positive thought after positive thought you get into nothing but negative thoughts. The best way to snap out of it is just focus on the next shot. Focus on just hitting a fairway. Or hitting a green. Instead of thinking about the trees or bunkers. If you want, you can set yourself a little target of hitting the next three fairways so you are playing a little mental game out there with yourself so it takes your focus away from the result.
Was the Masters one of those occasions where there was so much hype it was just too unlikely to pull off a win?
I’m not going to lie, there was a lot of expectation going into Augusta, a lot of hype, lots of expectation that I put on myself. It was a great opportunity to do something that very few players in this game have done. But I’ll go back next year with the same opportunity. Since then I guess a little bit of weight was lifted off the shoulders and freed me up to play the rest of the season the way I know that I can. I’m excited about what’s coming.
Do the recent victories by Jordan and Rickie give you just that bit more spark, or does it not affect you at all?
It does push me. When you see guys you know well winning tournaments – big tournaments – that you want to win, it spurs you on to practise a little harder or just try to play a little better. I feel like as the best player in the world I want to go at it every week and not so much prove it, but just show that.