Rory McIlroy embracing the spotlight that comes with No. 1 ranking

Thursday March 8th, 2012
Rory McIlroy will tee it up this week as the No. 1 player in the world for the first time in his career.
Lynne Sladky / AP

MIAMI -- Rory McIlroy isn't just the new No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Ranking, he's the new media favorite. If there were world rankings based on quotes and good interviews, the poised and freckled McIlroy would likely be No. 1 there, too, unlike a certain grumpy former No. 1 who has insisted on having an adversarial relationship with the media.

McIlroy is honest, thoughtful, endearing, clever, unassuming and delightful.

McIlroy didn't get a standing ovation or anything when he finished a lengthy chat with writers late Tuesday afternoon, but if he had, it wouldn't have been surprising. He was a breath of fresh air. Right from the start, he had the writers smiling. Asked what it's been like to be No. 1 for the last 48 hours, he grinned and said, "To be honest, it doesn't feel much different."

He is surprisingly poised and media-savvy for a 22-year-old and surprisingly open for someone who is officially a global celebrity. You probably saw highlights of him exchanging a few volleys with Maria Sharapova after Rory's girlfriend, former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, called him out onto the court to play a point during an exhibition. Rory won the point when Sharapova, obviously joining in the fun, sprayed an overhead shot off the court. It was fun stuff, the kind of thing the ultra-private and uptight Tiger never would've done.

Sometimes, the things McIlroy says make you forget that he's barely past being a kid. He's smart, he's properly humble, he shares what he's really thinking and, because of that, he's immensely quotable. Here are some highlights from his enjoyable Tuesday press conference.

*About his tennis foray with Sharapova: "I've never been so nervous in my life. I can hit a golf shot in front of a million people, but getting up there, I mean, I wanted to hit a serve, but I was thinking, if I cream this into the crowd, it's going to look so bad. So just a little under-arm, over the net. Maria was nice, she hit it back to me at quite a gentle pace."

*On whether he was upset that Caroline put him in that position: "Well, it was because Maria had got someone from the crowd to dance with her, and then Caroline turned to the crowd and said, 'Are there any hot guys that want to dance with me?' And I'm like, well, I don't want anyone else dancing with you, so I put my hand up. Thank God she didn't ask me to dance. I was much happier hitting a tennis shot."

*On the congratulatory messages he's received: "I got one from Fergie. Got one from Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, a few of the (Manchester) United boys. I got a lot. Greg Norman left me a voicemail and a message. He left me a voicemail after the Match Play, as well. Again, it was just nice for people to give their words of support and encouragement."

*On whether there was a private moment after his Honda Classic win when being No. 1 finally sank in: "There were a couple of points Sunday night when I was flying up to New York where I was sitting on the plane and reflecting on the last couple of weeks.

"And with Tiger making the charge, it was almost more satisfying to do it that way, knowing that I held up under pretty intense pressure when I needed to. Tiger posting a score and having to just play some solid golf on the way.What saved me on Sunday was my short game and my putting. I made some really key up-and-downs when I needed to and holed a couple of really crucial putts, and that was the difference from maybe 18 months ago."

*On whether he'll have a rivalry with Tiger Woods: "At the end the day, your biggest rival is the golf course. You have to beat the golf course; that's all you're trying to do. Ultimately, you're going to have to beat people coming down the stretch on Sundays, and whether it's Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or Lee Westwood or Luke Donald or Martin Kaymer or whoever. I would never want to say that I'm in a rivalry with someone. I just want to go out there and play good golf. And if I can do that, then people can make the rivalries up themselves. If people want to say there's a rivalry, so be it, but I don't see myself as anyone's rival out here."

*On how his Masters meltdown last year affected his career: "It was definitely a defining moment. It could have been the crossroads of my career. I could have let it affect me and let it get to me, and maybe go into a slump or feel down or feel sorry for myself. But I had enough good people around me not to let that happen. I was able to go down the right path and win the next major. All I wanted to do was put myself in the position again just to see if I had learned and handle it better.

"It was a little easier obviously going out on Sunday at the U.S. Open because I had such a big lead, but I felt a lot more relaxed and a lot more sure of myself that day than I did the Sunday of Augusta."

*On the inevitable comparison to Tiger Woods: "I'm going to let other people make the comparison. I'm not going to compare myself to anyone else. I've never said that I want to be the next anyone. I just want to be the first Rory McIlroy, however good that turns out to be."

*On what he remembers about Tiger's historic 1997 Masters victory: "I remember it quite well, actually. I remember watching it with my dad at home. I remember he went out in 40 on Thursday, went back in 30, shot a couple of rounds of 65 and 66 on Friday and Saturday. I remember I had the video of the 1997 and watched that all the time. So, yeah, that did have a big impact on me. Tiger had announced himself to the world a few months before that, but that was his first major and the sort of iconic image of him coming off the last green and giving his dad a hug; it did a lot for me. I remember it quite well."

*On whether he ever felt he was too young to accomplish some of the things he's accomplished: "My dad always said, 'If you're good enough, you're old enough.' I've never let anyone tell me that I was too young."

*On having to survive a charge by Tiger Woods to win the Honda Classic last weekend and claim the No. 1 ranking: "To be honest, I was thinking to myself, Could it not just have been anyone else? It definitely made Sunday a little more difficult or a little more interesting. I can sit here and lie and say that it didn't feel better to have Tiger post a score… it maybe made it feel a little sweeter than if it had of been someone else."

*On whether there's pressure to stay at No. 1: "No, not really. I'm coming in here trying to win this tournament. I'm not here to calculate what I need to do to stay No. 1. I'm coming here to try my best to shoot four good scores.

*On the pressure of being No. 1, because there's only one wayto go from there -- down: (Laughing) "Thanks!"

*Asked who he leans on for advice: "I've never been one to go out and seek advice. After Augusta last year, there was advice pouring in from everywhere. Most of the time, I try to figure things out on my own. I think that's the best way to do it."

*Asked if he's played Augusta National on a video game: "No, I haven't. (Laughing again) Maybe I should.

 

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