Golf: Mischievous McIlroy a star in the making says Monty
BEARING a passing resemblance to Dennis the Menace with his shock of black curly hair, teenager Rory McIlroy has added a welcome touch of mischief to the upper echelons of the game, with his elevation to 16th in the world rankings. He's the youngest golfer ever to be ranked in the top 20.
Only the sixth teenager to win on the European Tour, the 19-year-old's impressive victory over Justin Rose at the Dubai Desert Classic on Sunday also offered more evidence of a switch in the balance of golfing power towards Europe.
With four of the world's top ten and seven of the top 20 at his disposal for Celtic Manor in 2010, it was little wonder that Europe's Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie hailed the young Ulsterman's performance in the Gulf as a sign of special things to come.
"We have a superstar here in the making," observed the Scot, "and when you think of guys like Alvaro Quiros winning the Qatar Masters and 2008 rookie of the year Martin Kaymer, we have some amazing talent coming through.
"Right now, Rory is at the head of that group. To do what he has done – leading wire-to-wire and finishing 19 under par on a course of this difficulty – is fantastic. To do it at 19 years of age is incredible."
What was most impressive of all about McIlroy's performance was that he appeared to have let glory slip through his fingers.
Six shots clear with six holes to play, the former Walker Cup player suddenly resembled a young man under pressure as he sprayed tee shots and missed putts. By the time the adrenalin pumping through his system forced a pitch to the 18th green to carry ten yards too far into the back bunker, it was beginning to look as if Rose's experience might trump McIlroy's exuberance.
Facing a downhill chip from the sand to a green bordered by a water hazard, the Irishman executed the most sublime wedge shot. His ball trickled within four feet of the cup and he holed out for a victorious par. "The best shot I've ever played," said the youngster afterwards.
One veteran who wasn't surprised by either McIlroy's resilience or his shot-making qualities was former Open champion Mark O'Meara. The American, who has been a friend and a mentor to Tiger Woods, played 36 holes with the teenager and rated him a better ball striker at the same age than the world No 1, who didn't turn professional until he was 21.
"Ball-striking wise at 19, he's probably better than what Tiger was at 19," noted O'Meara. "His technique I think is better. Certainly Tiger has developed his game and swing over the years and made modifications to be able to hit the ball pin-high, but Rory is already doing that and he's 19, so he's already a step ahead. He's going to win quite a few tournaments, not only on the European Tour, but also in America, too, and there's no reason why he can't win a major championship."
Even before he won in Dubai, McIlroy had clinched a place in the field for the Masters. He has dreamed of competing at Augusta ever since he watched Nick Faldo overhaul Greg Norman on TV.
Long off the tee and a superb iron player, there's no reason why McIlroy shouldn't make a mark at the season's first major.
Before then, he'll catch the eye of the American public when he tees up in the next two World Golf Championship events, starting with the Accenture Match Play in Arizona.
As a native of Holywood in Northern Ireland, perhaps it won't be too long before the teenager's name is also up in lights in Hollywood, California. Certainly, the emergence of players of the calibre of McIlroy and Kaymer on top of the continuing high profile of men of the calibre of Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington, Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood, Paul Casey and Rose bodes well for the commercial well-being of the European Tour.
At a time of economic retrenchment when even the mighty PGA Tour is playing for less money this year than last, the news that BMW will extend their support for the European Tour in 2009 by becoming the title sponsors of the Italian Open was greeted with understandable enthusiasm at Wentworth yesterday.
George O'Grady, the chief executive of the Tour, said: "To have BMW as a partner, with their renowned commitment to standards of excellence in promoting golf tournaments, is the envy of all other sports. We look forward to a long and fruitful partnership in Italy."
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