With a heart-wrenching loss at Augusta and an explosive win at the U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy transcended golf in 2011

With a heart-wrenching loss at Augusta and an explosive win at the U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy transcended golf in 2011

Two months after stumbling at the Masters, McIlroy had his redemption with an eight-shot win at the U.S. Open.
Fred Vuich/SI

Rory McIlroy was playing in the North of Ireland Championship at Royal Portrush in July 2005. As a 2-year-old, he had poked a 40-yard drive; at 15, he had played for Europe's winning Junior Ryder Cup team; but now, at 16, his McNificence was still largely a matter of conjecture. He'd been left off Great Britain & Ireland's 10-man Walker Cup team that would travel to Chicago to play the United States that September, a conspicuous, controversial omission. The kid still had much to prove at Portrush.

"They weren't the easiest conditions," says Nick Mullen, a former junior golfer from Kildare, Ireland, who played against McIlroy and now manages a handful of Tour pros. "I think I shot 71 or 72 and I thought I did pretty damn good. Then I came in and saw 'R. McIlroy: 61.' He'd broken the course record. There are tons of stories like that."

Rory McIlroy was playing in the 2010 Quail Hollow Championship in North Carolina. And he wasn't exactly distinguishing himself. "He played terrible the first two rounds," says Ted Scott, who caddies for Bubba Watson, one of McIlroy's playing partners that week. "Most normal humans, when we start hitting it bad we start getting tight. He stayed in attack mode. He was like, 'I'm going to keep doing what I do and if it happens, it happens.' "

It happened. Two shots on the wrong side of the cut line Friday, McIlroy rifled a 206-yard 4-iron over water to within six feet for eagle on his 16th hole, the par-5 7th, made the putt and made the cut on the number. On Sunday he torched the field with a 62 — another course record — to become the first player since Tiger Woods to win before turning 21.

Rory McIlroy was playing in the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional last June. His ability to perform under pressure was in question after he'd blown a four-stroke, final-round lead at the Masters in April. He'd also lost a four-shot lead at the 2008 Omega European Masters. Was he too fragile? Jim Mackay, who caddies for Phil Mickelson, one of McIlroy's playing partners for the first 36 holes at Congressional, soon discovered the answer to that question was an emphatic no.

"He made the course look very, very easy," Mackay says. "He played so good on Thursday, you could see that coming in he was intentionally playing away from some of the pins, saying, 'OK, I've got it to 5-, 6-, 7-under' — he wasn't going to be greedy. As good as he played the first 36 holes [McIlroy shot 65-66] he could have gone lower. He had total command. The ball went wherever he was looking." Mackay now ranks those rounds, after which McIlroy had a record-tying six-stroke lead — Woods also led by a half-dozen halfway through the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach — among the top five he's witnessed in 20 years on Tour. McIlroy would go on to win by eight.

Here is what we know about Rory McIlroy, 22-year-old "It" kid, Tweeter, and women's tennis groupie: He has an extra gear.

Here is what we do not know: How often he'll be able to find it.

The breathless comparisons to Woods are understandable. We haven't seen anyone win the way McIlroy wins since Woods emerged in the late '90s, which is to say McIlroy, when he wins, wins big. But he is not racking up titles at a clip that suggests he'll end up with 71 of them, including 14 majors, as Woods has notched on the PGA Tour alone. McIlroy has perfected the art of finishing third, which he has done in three majors and in his first two starts after tweaking his wrist at the PGA at Atlanta Athletic Club. At press time, he was still stuck at three wins as a pro — two of them very muscular victories, but three victories nonetheless.

"I don't think he's head and shoulders above Jason Day, by any means," says FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas, referring to the 23-year-old Aussie who finished runner-up in two majors this year. "There are a lot of players like Jason, like Rory, that are really good. I don't see one guy dominating like Tiger Woods. … And it's unfair to say that Rory's going to be the new Tiger. He should try to stay grounded and not care so much about being No. 1. He will be."

McIlroy's first order of business at the winner's press conference at Congressional was to whip out his phone and snap a picture of the trophy — a move fellow Twitter-phile Keegan Bradley copied upon winning the PGA in Atlanta two months later. It was in Atlanta that we were reminded exactly how young McIlroy still is when he elected to try his boneheaded tree-root shot, sending a stinger up his arm and effectively ending his chances of winning on the third hole of the tournament. Upon finishing 64th three days later, he jetted off to Cincinnati to see his gal pal, top-ranked tennis pro Caroline Wozniacki. "I hear it's nice there this time of year," McIlroy quipped.

It's hard to overstate the damper his injury put on the PGA, where McIlroy had come into the week with Woodsian fanfare, having been deemed the natural successor to Tiger. McIlroy's PGA buzzkill was a harsh reminder that it's still too early to tell if he'll ever be The One.

"It's not like you can say, 'Oh, these two guys are going to be Jack and Arnie,' " says Rickie Fowler, McIlroy's elder by four months and perhaps the closest thing America has to its own Rory. "The PGA Tour is really deep right now, and it's deep around the world. It would be harder to dominate right now."

Whatever McIlroy does next, we'll have ample opportunity to watch, since he's said he will rejoin the PGA Tour in 2012, after letting his membership lapse this year. He's had an up-and-down relationship with the States. McIlroy was 11 when he played a summer on the Utah Junior Golf Association, boarding with a family in Orem. The family had its own golfing prodigy, Scott Pinckney, and he and Rory had become friends while finishing 1-2, respectively, at Miami's Doral-Publix Junior Golf Classic.

"His first day [in Utah] we went to the pool, and he got so burned he got sun poisoning," says Pinckney, who graduated from Arizona State last spring and is now trying to make it as a pro. "He was sick for a couple of days throwing up, and he still has freckles on his back from that day. Being a golfer you need to learn to travel and be away from friends and family, so it was a valuable experience for him, but it was tough, too."

Odds are that McIlroy's 2012 American adventure will be far less painful. He already knows his way around the Tour, where the courses and relatively benign weather are more conducive to his sky-scraping approach shots. McIlroy is no longer dating his high school sweetheart back in Ireland, as he was when he played the PGA Tour in 2010. And once he establishes a home base in Florida, he'll be much closer to three of the four majors.

Gary Woodland calls McIlroy's U.S. Open triumph the best comeback story of this year. "The kid's phenomenal," Woodland says. "He's got the best attitude I've ever seen. I played with him at the Memorial two weeks before he won the Open, and you could see it was coming."

McIlroy finished fifth at Muirfield Village, five strokes back. Hey, at least "Rors" wasn't third. Just as he did those first two rounds at Quail Hollow, he stayed aggressive until everything clicked 14 days later. Tour golf can be a waiting game, and the rest of us could stand to adopt Rory's patience. He's still just 22 — a nice place to be any time of year — and while he's figured out SPF, he's new to his own celebrity, dating a celebrity, and the whole Next Tiger thing. Says Mackay, "As he gets older and focuses more on the four majors, who knows what he'll do?"

Maybe McIlroy will just keep playing among his peer group, a coterie of superkids that includes Day, Fowler, Ryo Ishikawa, Matteo Manassero and others. Or maybe he'll settle into that extra gear, leaving them and everyone else to choke on his fumes. Maybe he'll be The One after all. If it happens, it happens.

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