There was a moment of hush at the 18th green, a moment to catch a breath as Rory McIlroy lined up the first of his two putts for glory. Then one fan shattered the silence. He was just one voice among the thousands crammed around the final green, but he spoke for millions. “Rory McIlroy: America loves you!”
McIlroy tapped in for par and history. He punched the air with a quick jab and then raised his right hand to the crowd. America high-fived him back. As Humphrey Bogart said at the end of “Casablanca”: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
It started in May last year when McIlroy, high-fiving fans and handing golf balls to kids along the way, won at Quail Hollow while shooting a course-record 62 in the final round.
The courtship got serious in the aftermath of McIlroy’s Masters meltdown in April. He cried like a boy but faced the media like a man and accepted defeat with grace and not a little humor. America felt sorry for him and wanted to tell him everything was going to be alright.
McIlroy was carried along on a wave of support at Congressional that was unprecedented for a foreigner. It was the kind of support that had recently been afforded only to Woods, Phil Mickelson and Payne Stewart. The Washington crowd loved McIlroy, and McIlroy loved them back.
“It felt like a home match,” he said afterward, with the trophy perched on the table next to him. “The support I got out there was absolutely incredible, for a foreigner to come over and play in front of these U.S. crowds. I think every cloud has a silver lining, and I think what happened at Augusta was a great thing for me in terms of support.
“To be able to have that when you come over here, and feel like you’re one of their own, is probably going to be pretty important in the next few years.”
Woods still receives massive support wherever he plays, but he has never enjoyed the media attention. McIlroy has always embraced his celebrity. The most accurate comparison is not with Woods but with Arnold Palmer, who was already an emerging superstar when he flew to St. Andrews in 1960 to play in the British Open while chasing a Grand Slam. Thousands swarmed over the Old Course links to catch a glimpse of him.
Palmer finished runner-up but returned the following year to win. He became an adopted Brit. Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson also won over the hearts of a partisan crowd. And now McIlroy has done it in the States.