SAN FRANCISCO—Rory McIlroy was already a well-known golfer in America when he won last year's U.S. Open at Congressional, but after his historic eight-shot victory, he was a sports star.
"I think I'm viewed differently by the golfing public, for sure, and maybe more recognized outside of golf now because of that win," McIlroy said Tuesday at the Olympic Club after a practice round with his good friend Graeme McDowell, his frenemy Lee Westwood and Robert Karlsson.
However, McIlroy said the win was worth a lot more to his golf game than his personal brand.
"In golfing terms, I feel like it's changed me a lot, I feel like it's given me a lot of confidence in these tournaments every time I tee it up," McIlroy said.
He added that the U.S. Open win has changed his expectations at regular tournaments as well.
"You're not just happy with top 10s anymore, and you're not happy finishing in the top five," he said, referring his recent T7 finish at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, a tournament where he had a chance to win. "When you get yourself into positions like I did last week, you want to finish them off and get wins. So, yeah, it's changed a little bit."
One thing that hasn't changed is McIlroy's sense of humor, which he displayed when asked about Irish Heritage Night at Tuesday's Giants game at AT&T Park, where McIlroy will deliver the first pitch and fans will receive a "Rory McIlroy Bobblehead."
"I think maybe it's better-looking than me, which is a good thing," said McIlroy, who has been practicing for his first pitch by throwing golf balls. "I don't know whether to play it conservatively and just lob it into his hand or go for the fast one."
Throwing a baseball for the first time in front of thousands of people is just one example of how McIlroy has embraced the spotlight since winning at Congressional last year. He's played tennis at a New York City tournament with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova, and he shares details of his personal life almost daily on Twitter.
McIlroy said the increased attention -- like his marquee grouping with Westwood and Luke Donald on Thursday and Friday -- helps him play better.
"It focuses your mind a little bit, and you feel like you really want to be prepared for that first hole," McIlroy said. "Of course, having Tiger and Phil and Bubba in the same group on the opposite side of the draw is going to be huge. If I was a golf fan I'd want to watch that group, because I'm sure you'll see some fireworks."
Still, McIlroy isn't above using the response of a more jaded sports star when it comes to a tough question. Asked about the difficulties he's encountered in his quest to maintain the No. 1 ranking now held by Donald, McIlroy echoed the mantra of the player whom he's most compared to on the course, if not in the media center.
"It is what it is," he said. Related Photos: SI's best shots from McIlroy's 2011 U.S. Open win (Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)