We caught up with Rory McIlroy before his US Open victory to get his views on Tiger, his critics, living in Belfast and his aspirations.
Ten years ago Tiger Woods was fearsome and unplayable. Most of his rivals said so, too. And that was fine. But now it’s different. Woods is vulnerable and his aura has vaporised. But it seems his peers (he has peers now) are frightened to tell it like it is.
But not Rory McIlroy. He has been criticised by some that still worship at the altar of Woods for having the confidence and honesty of youth to suggest that Woods isn’t quite the power he was once. Heck even Woods knows THAT. Would people rather have players with no opinions or those that lack the courage to air them? There are plenty of those already. And they get slammed, too – for being dull.
Thankfully McIlroy has a brain and is happy to exercise it. He has been the unofficial spokesman for the Tiger Generation, that group of 20-year-olds that was inspired by Woods, watching on television as he destroyed his rivals for more than a decade. McIlroy and his gang are now jostling for the game’s top honours and none of them bears the mental scars of a career blighted by a constant mauling at the hands of the former World No.1.
McIlroy felt obliged to send a message to his critics via twitter. “Hate that the media thinks I’m taking jabs at Tiger all the time. Best that’s ever lived. Ever. Just not playing his best at the minute. If he plays his best we’re all screwed. Hard to dodge the Tiger questions when you get 10 every interview you do.”
McIlroy is learning fast what Woods has known all his adult life: the more successful and famous you become, the more people want to ask your opinion on everything from what you like for breakfast to tragedies such as the tsunami in Japan. Be thankful that he is embracing all enquiries with intelligence, charm, patience, and wit. It was reported in two Irish newspapers recently that McIlroy had bought a Bugatti Veyron for £1.3 million. Again he took to twitter. “Total bollocks.”
McIlroy’s detractors should lend an ear to Horace Mann, the pioneering 19th Century American education reformer. “Do not think of knocking out another person’s brains because he differs in opinion from you. It would be as rational to knock yourself on the head because you differ from yourself 10 years ago.”
You recently said that Tiger Woods is now playing like an ordinary golfer. Do you see him ever back to his unbeatable best? Tiger is not playing as well as he was even a couple of years ago never mind going back to the late 1990s and early 2000s when he was at his best. I’m not sure we are going to see him dominate again the way he did. But I’ve never had the experience of coming down the stretch with him. He never seemed like he would ever make a mistake. Now it looks more likely. It’s not that he’s playing badly. He’s just playing badly by Tiger Woods standards. He is playing like an ordinary golfer. People expect more of him because of what he has achieved.
Do you think Tiger has lost his intimidating aura? I wasn’t playing against Tiger when he had that aura. I was watching on TV! I remember getting nervous when I first met him when I was 15. There was a presence about him then. There still is to some extent but when you are on the golf course you just block it out.
If you reach Tiger’s level, would you want to live under the scrutiny he has had to endure? As much as I would love to have the success Tiger has had on the golf course, I wouldn’t want to live the life that he has had to. He has made the same mistakes as any footballer or NBA or NFL player. Tiger is obviously different to the rest of us because he IS a bit of a rock star. But he can’t really take his kids to the cinema.
So is living in Belfast among friends vitally important? For me to be No.1, it would be important to remember where I am from and to stay loyal to my roots in Belfast with my family and friends. I can still go to the pub to watch Manchester United on TV with my mates. But it has got a little harder lately – Belfast is such a small city.
As you become more successful and more famous, you know it’s going to be tougher to lead a normal life, don’t you? It does feel like I have won the lottery a little bit but I have a great lifestyle in Northern Ireland. And it’s one I never want to lose. I am determined to hang on to my ordinariness. Which is why I love Twitter. It’s great because it makes us more normal to people that don’t know us. You know, the other day I tweeted to ask whether I should have a Chinese meal or a pizza. Just normal every day stuff. I think people appreciate that.
You’ve been criticised in America for choosing not to compete in the Players Championship or take up your PGA Tour card. Do you think it’s fair? Trying to play both tours turned out to be too much for me last season. I felt burned out. Cutting six or seven events off my schedule is going to be fantastic. I want to put all my efforts into Europe. There’s no vendetta against the PGA Tour. I love playing in the US. When Westy (Lee Westwood) or I don’t take up our membership of the PGA Tour or don’t play in the Players Championship, the headlines say, “Europeans snub PGA Tour.” But we’re not trying to get under anyone’s skin. We’re just working out what’s best for our lives and our schedule.
You’re not a fan of Sawgrass, either, are you? My record around Sawgrass isn’t great, anyway, and, no, I don’t really like the course. People might see that as an excuse to get out of it but I will play it again sometime. I never played the Players Championship when it was in March just before the Masters, but it had more pull at that time. It’s now stuck in the middle of the season and doesn’t quite have the same appeal. If I had played the Players I would be competing in five out of six weeks. That would not be the best preparation ahead of the US Open.
Do you detect a growing rift between Europe and the US? There is always going to be an Us versus Them rivalry between Europe and the US because of the Ryder Cup. It’s only natural. Especially with how well Europeans have performed over the past couple of years. It’s not a bad thing to create rivalries. It’s healthy for the game. But I think the PGA Tour and European Tour should get their heads together and I’m sure they are.
Is success for you now measured around your performances in the Majors? I feel my schedule and preparation are geared towards the four Majors now. Had that great win in the States in 2010 at Quail Hollow and a couple of top threes in the Majors (the Open and USPGA). I feel I am at the stage where I can compete and win the big tournaments. I’m top 10 in the world now but it’s good to feel that there are so many aspects of my game that I can improve. I still think Tiger (Woods), Phil (Mickelson) and Lee (Westwood) will be around at the top for quite a few years but my generation coming up behind them is strong. Martin Kaymer is only 26 but he has already got to No.1 in the world. And then there is me, Ryo Ishikawa and Rickie Fowler.
What needs to improve this year? I want to be able to say I gave 100%. Didn’t do that last season. You know, like when you’re teeing off on a Sunday morning and don’t have a chance to win, sometimes I find it hard to get motivated. That happened at Wentworth at the BMW PGA Championship. I teed off at 10 o’clock in the morning on Sunday, played, got out of there, didn’t really give it my all. That’s something I want to change.
So how’s it going so far? I’m working harder than ever trying to be more patient and not be so aggressive. To know when to fire at pins and when to go for the middle of the greens. I’m an instinctive player but I need to think a bit more. There’s a fine line between playing fast and rushing. That held me back last year. I make as many birdies as everyone else. I just make a few too many bogeys.
What are your goals? Winning Majors and getting to be No.1 – those are my goals. I’d like to achieve both and I think I’m capable of that. It’s just a matter of time. Just got to keep working hard. The Majors define your career. Even though I’ve only won twice as a pro, I feel I have the game to win Majors. Seeing Martin (Kaymer), Graeme (McDowell) and Louis (Oosthuizen) win one last year has made me realise it’s attainable. If they can do it, so can I.