John Huggan: Rory McIlroy is still an elite player

With all the off-field distractions and a drop in form, it’s easy to forget that Rory McIlroy is only 24 and still has the talent that makes him an elite player

On course: In a difficult year, Rory McIlroy maintained a pleasant persona. Picture: Mark Metcalfe/Getty
On course: In a difficult year, Rory McIlroy maintained a pleasant persona. Picture: Mark Metcalfe/Getty

IN the midst of all the nonsense – the change of clubs, the ongoing legal wrangles with his former management, the unscheduled walk off the course, the spurious speculation over his relationship with a certain blonde tennis player, controversy over which nation to represent at the Olympics, the drop from No.1 to No.6 in the world – that has dogged his life over the last 12 months or so, it is easy to forget just how intoxicating it can be to watch Rory McIlroy play golf.

As exemplified by his promising performance at the Australian Open that will conclude today, no one in the professional game, not even in-form local hero Adam Scott, can quite match the former US Open and PGA champion for innate ability. Hindered by a short game not much better than one-dimensional and his reliance on a putting method soon to be deemed illegal, the current Masters champion is McIlroy’s peer only with the longer clubs.

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Maybe “near-peer” would be more accurate. While Scott’s form is presently a joy to behold, judged over a longer period, he is half a notch below his Irish rival, at least aesthetically. The rhythm and flow of McIlroy’s beautifully natural-looking action, followed by the distinctive crunch at impact and the penetrating flight of his shots, combine to make a difficult game appear deceptively straightforward. In comparison, Scott’s swing has a more manufactured air.

Which is not to say McIlroy is back to the sort of sensational form that saw him win his first major championship by a margin of eight shots and his second by only one fewer.

He isn’t. Not quite. Even his seven-under-par second round of 65 here at Royal Sydney contained three bogeys. But he’s getting there.

Take the way the young Ulsterman played the 610-yard, par-5 16th hole on Thursday. Hitting both uphill and into a stiffish breeze, McIlroy struck his drive 315 yards. Then, after waiting for the distant green to clear (“I had 270 to the front”) he smashed a 269-yard 3 wood. Okay, three putts followed, but the first two were shots maybe only ten golfers in the world are capable of producing. And at least five of those don’t have the all-round game to compete at the highest level. McIlroy, for all that has gone on over the last few months, is clearly an elite player. And, perhaps more importantly, he remains an inherently pleasant individual.

“He’s had a few distractions and he’s still young,” says leading swing coach Pete Cowen, who worked with the Irish amateur squad when an even fresher-faced McIlroy was first making his mark. “People forget that. I’m not sure he’s yet had the life experience to deal with some of the problems he’s had. It’s as simple as that.

“He’s not a difficult person. Rory is a lovely guy. And special. Always has been. I first saw him when he was maybe 14. I’ll never forget the shots that little lad could hit. There was one he couldn’t hit though, a bunker shot I showed him. He tried and tried. He wasn’t embarrassed to give it a go in front of all of the men. And, when he couldn’t get it, he turned to me and said, ‘I’ll have it next time’.

“And he did. It was the first thing he did for me. He was desperate to show me. That’s a quality you want in people. He’s never been a shrinking violet. Over the last few months he’s had a few aggravations. But he’s never stopped being a nice bloke and a brilliant talent. He’s enormously attractive to kids coming up.”

That much was obvious during the clinic McIlroy gave to a crowd of 250 Aussie youngsters on the Royal Sydney range last Tuesday. Clearly comfortable in front of a crowd (“he loves the stage, doesn’t he?” said one eye-witness) McIlroy balanced humour with education and put on a great show for his impressionable audience. Whatever he was paid to appear Down Under, he more than earned a good chunk of his fee that afternoon.

Still, for all his general bonhomie, a couple of dark clouds do continue to linger in the McIlroy sky. Questions remain, some he isn’t happy to hear. Immediately after his opening round of 69, he was asked how he was adjusting to his “new” Nike clubs.

“Well, I’ve had them a year now,” was the curt response. “If they were a problem I think I would have fixed it by now.” End of discussion.

The biggest issue – and the one with potential to further distract McIlroy from the on-course business that has already made him a multi-millionaire – is the continuing lawsuit involving his former managers, Dublin-based Horizon Sports. Not surprisingly, relations remain somewhat less than cordial between the two protagonists.

Only this past week, McIlroy settled another legal issue with Oakley sunglasses. And, in a statement clearly concocted by both sides in the now former dispute, Pat McIlvain, vice-president of Oakley Sports Marketing, took an obvious shot at Horizon.

“We are very pleased the proceedings against Rory have been resolved,” he said in a statement. “We enjoyed an excellent relationship with Rory as an Oakley brand ambassador. He conducted all his engagements on our behalf with energy and professionalism. We recognise that, in his business dealings with us that were the subject matter of this dispute, Rory was represented by his agent.”

Ouch. The clear – and simplistic – implication is that poor wee innocent Rory was simply led astray by an evil, money-grabbing manager.

“What is slightly unusual about all of this is switching managers when things are going well,” says former Walker Cup captain Peter McEvoy, who has experience in the often-complex business of player representation. “People normally switch when there is something wrong and they are looking for someone to blame.

“Rory is a very nice lad, albeit he is different. He always seems to tell the truth, or at least tries to. But he has never struck me as the sort of guy who falls out with people. He has a very close relationship with his family. But he does things his own way.”

That he does. After playing in Tiger Woods’ event in California this week, McIlroy will spend New Year in Brisbane before heading to Dubai for two weeks’ practice. His first event in 2014 will be the Abu Dhabi Championship. There’s always time for fun though. During his maiden practice round at Royal Sydney last week, McIlroy was enthusing about Royal Melbourne and the World Cup of Golf he had watched on television. “I love to see golf when the ball is on the ground,” he said. “It’s so much more interesting.”

Then there were the shots he had hit the previous week with some persimmon woods.

“It was great,” he continued. “But you need to hit balata balls. Off a wooden-headed club, the ball tends to dip and doesn’t stay in the air.”

“Yes, but it’s still so much better than the ‘smash golf’ you typically have to play on tour,” replied his companion.

“That’s true,” he said with a smile. “But I like ‘smash golf’ too.”

No wonder. He’s very good at it. Maybe even the best.