Player of the year: Rory McIlroy

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As crowds lining Tower Bridge watched on, and the River Thames glistened underfoot, a hapless Boris Johnson swung aimlessly into the water. Standing alongside him was a smiling Ulsterman, partaking in promotional duty in London, looking every inch the global icon. Rory McIlroy, the Lionel Messi of golf? “I don’t need another year like this one,” laughed the four-time Major winner. “I’d need another 10.”

While asked in jest, and answered with equal levity, McIlroy’s mesmerising summer of golf has disarmed even his harshest critics of ammunition, propelling a young pretender into a veteran contender.

“I thought winning the Open placed me on a higher level in this game,” recalls McIlroy, speaking after his double Major success at Hoylake and Valhalla, and his Bridgestone Invitational win at Firestone. “I was happy being a two‑time Major champion coming into this year; now all of a sudden I’m a four‑timer going for a career Grand Slam at Augusta. I never thought I’d get this far so young but it’s been an incredible run and I just couldn’t be happier with where my game’s at.”

Though coming to a tiring halt at East Lake Golf Club, host to Billy Horschel’s Tour Championship and £7m FedEx Cup victory, McIlroy’s recent acquiring of the Claret Jug, plus the Wanamaker and Gary Player trophies, shows a maturity beyond his 25 years. “I’m putting golf first and dedicating everything I have into my career,” says a revitalised McIlroy, who returned to the top of the world rankings following his World Golf Championship win in Akron, Ohio. “To be honest I’ve worked hard all year, but I’ve just had this renewed focus and dedication and it seems to be paying off.”

Despite four tournaments under his shiny Nike buckle belt this season, including the BMW PGA Championship in May, the year began under a cloud of negativity, as McIlroy’s apparent lack of professional focus came into question.

An untimely legal case, a change of club manufacturer and a well-publicised split from tennis player fiancée Caroline Wozniacki had the game’s brightest hope deflecting criticism at seemingly every press conference. But as the sun went down in Louisville, Kentucky, even the rain and impending darkness failed to deny McIlroy another magical Major moment – his gritty PGA Championship victory symbolic of his unwavering resurgence following 18 challenging months.

“Being able to gut it out and win ugly is the most satisfying,” recalls McIlroy, who dodged raindrops to defeat the charging Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler dramatically at Valhalla. “To win it in that fashion and that style means a lot. It means that I know I can do it. I know that I can come from behind. I know that I can mix it up with the best players in the world down the stretch in a Major and come out on top.

“Phil Mickelson is one of the best players of this generation and to be able to beat him on the back nine on a Sunday... well it’s great to have that in the memory bank going forward.”

Rory and the Claret JugA talent nurtured across the Emerald Isle, McIlroy’s humble upbringing in his hometown of Holywood, County Down, has helped conceive a self-diagnostic approach to his career, an approach that has proved crucial in his exhilarating return to form.

Big enough to carve out a learning process from a tumultuous and potentially damaging period in his young life, McIlroy now accepts winners don’t wait for their chance at greatness; they simply take it.

“Through being world No.1 before I’ve learned not to think about it too much,” adds the man who became the first European to win three different Majors following his Open triumph. “Not to feel like you’re defending every week. It’s a nice honour, but if you just play and try to win golf tournaments, the ranking takes care of itself.”

Displaying the rare knack of making the superlative appear normal, McIlroy’s change in demeanour has not gone unnoticed, with 18-time Major winner Jack Nicklaus alluding to his new found “swagger” on the golf course. “He’s cocky in a nice way,” summarised Jack. For his part, McIlroy believes his drive and ambition may, one day, put him in the same bracket as the Golden Bear and fellow Nike stable mate Tiger Woods. He sits just behind the pair as the third youngest player to achieve three legs of a career Grand Slam.

“I definitely hope so,” he muses. “I’ve really found my passion for the game again. Not that it ever dwindled, but it’s what I think about when I get up in the morning and it’s what I think about when I go to bed at night.”

When raising the coveted Claret Jug above his unmistakable curly locks at Hoylake, McIlroy glanced at the long list of names etched in silver on golf’s oldest trophy – Watson, Hagen, Player, Nicklaus, Woods, Faldo, Ballesteros; the list goes on. But in dominating the field wire-to-wire at Royal Liverpool – a course dubbed a “breeder of mighty champions” by legendary golf writer Bernard Darwin – he now threatens to surpass them all.

“It’s never effortless,” clarifies McIlroy, maintaining arguably his greatest skill –modesty. “You’re trying hard out there but you’re trying not to make it look like you’re trying hard.”

McIlroy says his disciplined display in Merseyside was triggered by two key thoughts – ‘process’ and ‘spot’. “They were very simple,” he laughs. “But that was it. With my long shots I wanted to stick to my process, making good decisions and swings. I wasn’t thinking about the end result. ‘Spot’ was for my putting. I was just picking a spot on the green and trying to roll it over that spot every time. I wasn’t thinking about holing it. I wasn’t thinking about what it would mean or how many further clear it would get me. I just wanted to roll that ball over that spot. If it went in, then great. If it didn’t, then I’d try it the next hole.”

McIlroy, who missed the cut at Muirfield in 2013, believes the clarity arises from a new approach to his game. “Stick to whatever I’m doing right”, as he puts it.

But the by-product of clearer thinking is a renewed confidence off the tee, endorsed by a driving average of 310.5 yards, placing the big-hitter in similar statistical form to his ground-breaking 2012 season, when he won four times on the PGA Tour, including the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.

“The way I approach it is the longer the club, the harder it is to hit,” explains McIlroy, who placed third behind Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson in the driving distance stakes this season. “So if you’re hitting arguably the hardest club in your bag and you hit it well, then the other stuff should fall into place.

“Whenever I drive the ball well I always put myself in positions where I can attack flags to try and make birdies, which funnels through the rest of my game. If I’m swinging well with my driver, more than likely I’m swinging well with everything else.”

Given his controlling performances of late, and his flourishing confidence to match, the Ulsterman is under no illusions that he’s currently enjoying the form of his life. “This is better,” he admits, favouring present form over his PGA Tour and European Tour money list wins of 2012. “I’m more in control of my ball and my ball flight. Mentally, I’m really sharp.” 

Sharpness filed by lifelong swing coach Michael Bannon, who can digitally trace McIlroy’s progress from a pint-sized prodigy in the suburbs of East Belfast, to the show-stopping world-beater he is today.

Celebrating the May BMW PGA“Our relationship has evolved over the past few years,” says McIlroy, who has called Bannon his coach since the age of seven. “He doesn’t need to be as hands-on because I’m going with it and I’ve got momentum. But there’s still a couple of things in my swing that I feel that I need to fix or a couple of things that I can iron out. But at the same time, it’s not just about the golf swing. Michael knows how to play this game and what it’s about. And I have good chats with him about course management and picking certain shots for certain situations, and that’s how our relationship has evolved.”

Evolving both technically and mentally since his teenage days, McIlroy insists doubts never crossed his mind during the troublesome months of 2013, when only a last-gasp Australian Open title prevented an otherwise barren season on Tour.

“No, I never had doubts,” he says. “The work I’ve put into my golf swing from the age of 15 to 20 is going to see me through my career. Yes I have a golf swing that can go off from time to time, but I know the parameters of it and I know how to get it back on track. There’s no reason why I should look to try and swing the club differently.”

During the darker moments, such as his controversial withdrawal from the Honda Classic last year amid a flurry of media interest, McIlroy relied on reliving great performances of days gone by – especially revisiting his 2011 US Open blitz at Congressional, and his 2012 US PGA annihilation at Kiawah Island.

“The ability was still there,” he recalls, in reference to the subdued 2013 and early part of this year. “That wasn’t it. It was just trying to find a way to make it come out again. But missing the cut at the Open Championship at Muirfield last year was a very low point. I remember saying to myself, ‘I’ll try to never let that happen again’ and it’s been huge what a difference a year makes.”

McIlroy’s desire to remain grounded however, ensures he seldom speaks about rewriting the annals of golfing history, unless pressed. “I’ve got to take it one small step at a time,” he says, harbouring a desire to first complete his career grand slam at Augusta before attempting to become the most successful European of all-time. “But golf is looking for someone to put their hand up and I said at that time I want to be that person.

“To be the face of golf or one of the faces of golf is a big responsibility and I feel like I’m up to the task of handling it well. You have to welcome it and not see it as a burden. I’ve had chances to kick on but I want to be the guy that goes on and wins Majors regularly because I feel like there’s a lot more left in me. I’m playing some great golf at the minute and I want to keep this run going for as long as I can. There will be a lot of hype going into Augusta but first things first. I’ve got a lot of golf to take care of before turning my attention to the Masters.”

Seven years ago this month, a fresh faced 18-year-old McIlroy wandered off the St Andrews Old Course and checked his bank balance: it read £170,000.

In finishing the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship with a final round 68 to secure standalone third, mere weeks after turning professional, the baby-faced, bushy haired assassin-in-waiting was overwhelmed by his newfound wealth. And in many respects, little has changed.

“I think you’ve always got to keep your humility, and of course, your honesty as well,” he adds. “It shouldn’t be a problem to try and keep those two things. I’m lucky to be able to play this game, it’s been great to me and I want to make the most of it.”