The only way is up for the boy from Down


At the age of 23, Rory McIlroy is already the World Number One. Matthew Morrow wonders if he can become the greatest the sport has ever seen    In all walks of sport there are players that stand out from the crowd. From Lionel Messi in football to Brian O’Driscoll in rugby, Roger Federer in tennis to LeBron James in basketball, there are those blessed with what commentators would call the ‘X factor’. In golf, few would argue that Rory McIlroy isn’t comfortably in this category after a meteoric rise to the top of the world golf rankings.

This comes as a result of an incredible year in 2012 for McIlroy, during which he won five times on the USPGA Tour, including his second major. McIlroy also helped Europe to possibly the most thrilling comeback in the history of sport and topped the money list on both the European and US Tours.

McIlroy’s rise began to gain public attention when he won the Silver Medal for the Best Amateur at the 2007 British Open. Indeed, after his bogey-free first round of 69, people were wondering if he could win the whole tournament before Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia had their thrilling shoot-out, in which the Irishman prevailed.

McIlroy turned professional shortly after and secured his card with a third place finish at the Alfred Dunhill Links. His first professional win would arrive at the prestigious Dubai Desert Classic in February 2009 and he would go on to record a third place finish in the final major of the year, the US PGA Championship.

McIlroy’s rise in 2010 continued with a win at the Honda Classic, which included an amazing four shot victory coming as a result of a final round of 62. Now comfortably embedded in the top ten players in the world, comparisons to Tiger Woods were inevitably made.

McIlroy’s final round performance in the 2011 Masters put these comparisons on hold, but his exemplary performance at the 2011 US Open broke several of the records that Tiger had set at Pebble Beach in 2000. After this masterful week of play, golf fans around the world were asking when, not if, McIlroy would ascend to the top of the world rankings.

Some commentators were disappointed that he ‘only’ managed one other win in 2011; the Hong Kong Open. Many began to criticise his focus following his appearances ringside at David Haye fights or in the Royal Box on Centre Court, where he watched his girlfriend, and former World Number One in tennis, Caroline Wozniacki.

McIlroy would go on to answer these critics with a breathtaking start to the 2012 season. He placed in the top four in five consecutive events on both sides of the Atlantic, including winning the Honda Classic. This victory finally elevated him to the World Number One ranking, and was particularly satisfying given that he held off a charging Tiger Woods in the final round.

McIlroy and Luke Donald would swap positions at the top of the ranking until McIlroy became the youngest person since Seve Ballesteros to win his second major, at the 2012 US PGA Championship.  His eight stroke margin of victory broke Jack Nicklaus’s record winning margin and confirmed that McIlroy has the potential to challenge even Woods and Nicklaus in terms of majors won.

McIlroy failed to win the 2012 FedEx Cup, despite recording victories in two of the Playoffs four events; the Deutsche Bank Championship and the BMW Invitational.  His form was on a level that many commentators compared to Tiger Woods in his prime around ten years ago; relentless in his pursuit of victory and ruthless when he hit the front.

His form in the Ryder Cup was mixed, but he showed his true qualities in the remarkable Sunday comeback by the Europeans when he beat the previously unbeaten Keegan Bradley on the 17th green. A third place finish at the Singapore Open secured both the European and US Money Lists, a feat only ever previously achieved by Luke Donald in 2011.

The question that all golf fans are asking if McIlroy can emulate the achievements of his hero, Tiger Woods. At this moment, all signs point to McIlroy winning many, many more titles and majors.  His talent is prodigious, but, perhaps more importantly, he is comfortable with who he is and who he is surrounded by in terms of his management.

His split from manager Andrew ‘Chubby’ Chandler was a result of a dispute about what Tour he should join on a full-time basis. McIlroy vindicated his decision to switch to the PGA Tour with five wins this year. He continues to be the most exciting young name in golf, inspiring millions of young players to take up the game, and doing so in the most relaxed style possible.

There is one decision on the horizon for McIlroy though: who he will declare for at the Rio Olympics in 2016. McIlroy holds a British passport and has said that he feels more British than Irish, although he can choose to declare for either Great Britain and Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.

At only 23 years of age, McIlroy’s future is undoubtedly bright, regardless of which country he declares for. There is no doubt that the young man from County Down has the potential to bring golf to another level, and with Tiger Woods now back and playing near to his best again the 2013 season should be something to behold.