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When McIlroy met Nicklaus, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship

Rory McIlroy, third round, 2011 U.S. Open
McIlroy, trying to win his first major, has been seeking advice from Jack Nicklaus.

When Chubby Chandler signed Rory McIlroy in 2007 as an 18-year-old phenomenon, he sought out Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson for advice on how to manage a prodigy. Ferguson, who has nurtured the superstar careers of David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, has been looking out for McIlroy ever since. They spoke after McIlroy's Masters meltdown in April.

England's former cricket captain Michael Vaughan has been sharing his insights on how to handle the ups and downs of competing under the most intense spotlight. Tom Watson says, "Rory's got 'it.'" And Watson should know.

The great and the good have been lining up to help McIlroy achieve the greatness that has been predicted for him.

But McIloy now has a mentor. The finest money can't buy. Jack Nicklaus likes the cut of the Northern Irishman's jib. He likes his moxie. Nicklaus first met McIlroy and his father, Gerry, in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., during the week of the 2009 Honda Classic. It was only McIlroy's second appearance on the PGA Tour, but he had already made enough noise on the European Tour to catch Nicklaus's attention. He spotted the McIlroys in a tournament courtesy car and introduced himself. "Hi," he said to Rory. "I thought that was you."

Shortly after that chance meeting, Nicklaus invited McIlroy to use the secluded practice area at his private Bear's Club. McIlroy was now officially adopted. The Golden Bear had his Golden Cub. Nicklaus is the expert on what it feels like to fail to win a major championship. He finished runner-up 19 times. He's also the expert on how to win them: his 18 major victories are still four ahead of Tiger Woods, who is currently hobbling around his Florida estate on crutches.

Nicklaus, 71, has clearly seen something in 22-year-old McIlroy, and they have struck up a special relationship. At the 2010 Honda Classic, Nicklaus invited McIlroy to lunch. It turned out to be a 90-minute master class in the art of how to become a major champion. "It was an unbelievable experience," McIlroy said.

Nicklaus talked. McIlroy listened. Nicklaus told him you can be at the peak of your game but still be beaten.

"He told me that the best he has ever played was in the Open at Turnberry in 1977, and yet Tom Watson won," McIlroy said.

Nicklaus also told him that you don't always have to bust a gut to win. Just wait for the others to lose.

"I thought that when he got in front, he'd say, 'Right, I'm going to grind these guys down,'" McIlroy said. "Actually, he said he just waited for everyone else to make mistakes and admitted that he had a lot more majors handed to him than he went out and won. I found that very interesting."

The legend and the phenom are now regular lunch buddies. McIlroy said their conversations are always about how to win majors. "He said there's going to be a lot of pressure on you, but you've got to put a lot of pressure on yourself early," McIlroy said. "That's what he always did. He emphasized so much to me about not making mistakes. That was his big thing."

Nicklaus caught up with McIlroy again at the Memorial. It was the first time Nicklaus had a chance to take McIlroy to task for his back-nine collapse at Augusta. He said he was going to kick McIlroy's butt. McIlory talked about that meeting earlier this week.

"He didn't really threaten to beat me up," McIlroy said. "But I think I could take him now.

"He's a little old," he added, laughing.

They joked about Augusta, but Nicklaus had a serious message for his young friend.

"He said to me, 'I'm expecting big things from you,'" McIlroy said. "It's a nice pressure to have knowing that the greatest player ever at the moment thinks that you're going to do pretty good. He said he always put a lot of pressure on himself. He expected to play well. He expected to be up there all the time in a position to win. And he said, 'I expect you to do the same thing.'"

That's exactly what McIlroy has done at Congressional. He is walking into history. The fans love him. It's like watching Tiger at the Masters in 1997 and Pebble Beach in 2000. Thousands will line the fairways on Sunday and congregate behind the greens.

It's almost certain to be McIlroy's coronation. And Nicklaus will be watching.

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