On a balmy February evening in South Florida, 22-year-old Rory McIlroy is surrounded by the spoils of his success: a seven-bedroom manse, a muscular Bentley out front, a pool and palm trees out back. This is his rental property for the next three months, a Jupiter compound that sits hard against the Loxahatchee River.
After a long day of beating balls and pumping iron, McIlroy, in flip-flops and jeans, wanders to the end of the yard, beyond a stately fountain and a sculpture of a scantily clad woman. “Rickie’s five doors down,” he says before gazing across the white-capped channel, “and Keegan’s right across the way.” That would be Rickie Fowler and Keegan Bradley, two other young princes who have taken the PGA Tour (and Jupiter, apparently) by storm.
McIlroy, though, is the undisputed kingpin of the group, a role for which he has always seemed destined but never fully grasped until his runaway victory at the U.S. Open last summer. McIlroy says the attention heaped upon him after that week was overkill, and it hasn’t relented much in the 10 months since. Even his own peers are enamored with him, including Hunter Mahan, who beat McIlroy in the final of the WGC-Accenture Match Play earlier this year only to use the occasion to anoint McIlroy as “the best player in the world right now, for sure.” A week later, at the Honda Classic, McIlroy made it official, claiming the World No. 1 ranking with a two-shot victory at PGA National. It’s a nice path McIlroy’s following, especially because this time last year he wasn’t convinced he was on the right path at all.
In the last year, you won your first major, switched managers, and began dating tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. How much has all that attention and off-course activity prevented you from playing to your potential?
I think it's been the complete opposite. It's given me a lot more peace of mind, a lot more contentment, and that's enabled me to play some great golf along the way. If you look at my results since after the  PGA, I've finished outside the top 10 once and I've got three wins. So I think you can see from my results that [the changes] have actually helped my game. They've been a positive.
At the Match Play in February, you said that regardless of what the rankings say, Tiger Woods is still the best player in the world. Do you still believe that?
I do. You can't judge someone just by how they've played over the last few weeks, the last few months. You have to look at the overall picture. Tiger's won 14 majors and 72 PGA Tour events. People have very short memories. They forget that just a couple of years he ago, he won a U.S. Open on one leg; in 2007-08, his win percentage was over 50 percent. When he's on, he's by far the best player in the world.
If there's a knock against you, it's that you lack the ability to close out tournaments, which for years was Tiger's trademark. Fair criticism?
In a way it's fair, because I feel like I've gotten myself in position to win a lot more golf tournaments than I have. The thing is, as long as I keep putting myself in the position to win, hopefully all of a sudden I'll be able to knock off four, five, six tournaments a year, which is what I want to do. But ultimately, if you gave me another season like I had last year with two wins and a major, I'd take it. For me, it's all about majors and trying to rack up as many of those as possible.
Your win over Lee Westwood in the semifinals of the Match Play clearly meant a lot to you. Why did you want to beat him so badly?
First of all, he's one of the best players in the world. And of course we were competing for the No. 1 spot in the world, so I needed to beat him to get into the final and at least have a chance [at becoming No. 1]. Obviously [the media] has made a big thing out of me and Lee, but to be honest our relationship has always been very competitive because of what we do. I get on fine with Lee, Lee gets on fine with me. There's no real animosity there.
Westwood has made some snarky remarks about you, both in the press and on Twitter. Is that just the spirit of your relationship?
A little bit, yeah. I've tried to stay clear of that over the past few months, simply because it's something I don't want to get involved in too much. But that's sort of the deal with all us guys -- we give each other a bit of grief now and then. It's all good-spirited, and I think most of us take it the right way.
Why did you “unfollow” Westwood on Twitter?
The only reason I unfollowed him is that he tweets so much. He fills up your timeline -- a bit like [Ian] Poulter. There are a few people like that -- when you see 20 new tweets on your timeline, half of them are from that person.
You surprised a lot of people when you left Chubby Chandler's management group, ISM, in October, for Horizon Sports, a small firm whose only big-name client to that point was your pal Graeme McDowell. Why did you leave?
I felt like the path I was going down wasn't the path I wanted to go down.
In what sense?
In the sense of my life outside of golf. I just wanted a few fresh ideas, and to see things from a different perspective, a different angle. And obviously being so close to Graeme, I had spent a lot of time with all the guys at Horizon. I saw firsthand what a great job they did for him. To be honest, it was something I'd thought about for quite a while. I'd made my mind up a few weeks before the [news broke]. Chubby and ISM were great for me starting out in 2007. I think what they have there is very good for young players because they have guys who have played on Tour before, they understand what you need. But I felt like I had reached the point where I needed something else.
Chandler told me last summer that McDowell enjoyed being a big fish in a small pond at Horizon. Was he cool with you coming aboard?
It's funny. When I joined ISM in 2007, Graeme left ISM at the end of that year. I thought it was because of me in some way, that I had come along and sort of taken a bit of time or attention away from him. I had conversations with him about that, and he said, “No, not at all.” And then that was something I talked to Graeme about before I joined Horizon. I said, “I don't want to come in here and take away anything from you.” And he said, “You joining Horizon would be great. We could do things together.” So, no, it's been great.
What have you learned from McDowell?
What I've learned from Graeme is his work ethic. I think he structures everything so well. He's got a very analytical mind, whereas I can be very impulsive in some ways. He really weighs his options and takes his time with things. Even with the way he structures his practice and goes through his drills, he's very methodical, and that's something that's rubbed off on me.
How are you impulsive? Do you walk into a car dealership and buy the first thing you see?
Yeah, something like that. [Laughs] I just make split decisions instead of weighing up the options and thinking about it, or taking a step back and saying, “OK, if I choose to do this, what are the consequences?” For me, it was always, I'll do this, and whatever happens, happens. I think getting some experience and getting older has helped as well, as has spending time with Graeme.
Are you impulsive on the course?
Definitely. I need to rein that in a little bit. You've got to make the right decisions at the key times.
You were thinking about moving to the States last year, but you've decided against it. Why the change of heart?
It was always something that I had thought about, but I never really found the right place. To be honest, I didn't have the time to look at places. I always knew I wanted something in Florida, but I didn't know if I wanted to be in Orlando or [the West Palm Beach area]. In the end, I made a decision not to move here permanently. I'll still have a second base here.
So Tim Finchem need not be concerned?
No, of course not. [Laughs] I'll be a PGA Tour player for a lot of years to come.
That wasn't all that clear a year ago when you and Westwood declined to play the PGA Tour's flagship event, the Players Championship.
Yeah, that's another example of being involved with Chubby and ISM and maybe being led down the wrong path, or a path that I didn't want to go down. It was something I sort of felt like I had to do.
Because Chubby said so?
Well, because of -- yeah, a little bit. I think just spending a little bit of time around Chubby and Lee and hearing their view of the PGA Tour -- obviously they're very pro-European Tour, while I've always been one who wanted to play over here and wants to play on the PGA Tour. Maybe that was one of the decisions I look back on and regret a little bit.