“Nice to see you, to see you nice” must surely have been his reply.
Surprisingly, especially considering he has a house on the plush Wentworth Estate and is a golf nut, “Brucey” hadn’t been invited to play in yesterday’s pro-am. Still, there was no shortage of celebrities involved to keep an army of autograph hunters happy. Most, it seemed, were there for Niall Horan, a member of boyband One Direction, while the footballing fraternity showing off their golfing skills included Gordon Strachan, Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness.
Thankfully, the stage has now been left to the ‘real’ golfers and, with all due respect to the other 149 players setting out in today’s opening round of the BMW PGA Championship on the West Course at Wentworth, one in particular will be commanding huge interest from the record crowd that is expected for the European Tour’s flagship event.
Since claiming an unexpected victory here 12 months ago – his poor previous record on this layout hadn’t pointed to that and, in addition, he’d just broken off an engagement to Caroline Wozniacki on the eve of the tournament – it’s been onwards and upwards for Rory McIlroy. He’s won two majors, two WGCs and two regular Tour events –one on the European Tour and the other on the PGA Tour.
Despite that remarkable run of success, the 26-year-old isn’t getting carried away by allowing himself to think that he only has to keep turning up at events for more titles to be claimed. “Golf is a very fickle game and it can humble you quite quickly,” remarked McIlroy. “So I definitely don’t think I’m unbeatable.”
What he was prepared to admit, however, is that the mere presence of his name on leaderboards is starting to have the same influence as Tiger Woods did when the same thing happened in his prime. “I feel like my name now carries a certain weight on the leaderboard,” added McIlroy. “I don’t know if you call that intimidation, but I feel that when players see my name on the leaderboard now, it might mean a little bit more than it used to.”
Will that see him dominate the game the way Woods did in terms of the volume of victories he used to chalk up every season? “Yeah, I think he can to a certain extent,” opined Graeme McDowell, who has watched McIlroy blossom into the world No 1 since taking him under his wing in the early days of his fellow Ulsterman’s professional career.
“He’s always had that potential. He’s one of the most impressive players that I’ve ever played with as far as a complete player goes and over the last eight months, he’s dominated golf. To have the obscene summer he had last year is maybe a big ask, especially with the type of young players that are stepping up to the plate nowadays, but he certainly has the tools.
“He’s an outstanding golfer and, having spoken to him a little bit the last couple days, I can feel the drive emanating out of him. I feel like he’s probably more motivated and more driven. I feel like you look at a guy like him, he kind of has that Tigeresque mentality driving him to win more (big events).”
McIlroy is developing a habit of winning by big margins. His seven-shot success in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow last weekend was achieved in the same runaway fashion that saw both the 2011 US Open at Congressional and 2012 US PGA Championship at Whistling Straits fall to him. His first Open Championship triumph at Hoylake last summer was also close to being a walk in the park. “I’ll take any wins any way I can get them, whether it’s by one shot or in a play-off or by seven shots like last week,” he said. “I feel like now I’m a player that can win all different sorts of ways, which I’m happy about. I can be in contention and gut it out with a few other players or separate myself from the field, as I did on Saturday (with his course-record 61 in the third round in Charlotte).”
A huge Manchester United fan, McIlroy has enjoyed spending time with some Old Trafford legends over the past couple of days. At Tuesday night’s glitzy bash, he enjoyed catching up with Sir Alex Ferguson, who had delivered a team talk to the European team on the eve of last year’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, an event, incidentally, he reckoned had only been bettered in his sporting career by cup finals he was involved in.
Then, in yesterday’s pro-am, he had two former United stalwarts, Paul Scholes and Phil Neville, in his team along with Horan. “It was nice that Alex came up on stage and got properly recognised,” said McIlroy of the Scot joining European captain Paul McGinley, three of his vice-captains and a number of players in a fitting celebration of last year’s victory in Perthshire. “As Paul said, he leaned on him (Ferguson) quite a bit and learnt a lot from him. But, at the same time, I think Alex was very impressed with what Paul had to say and what his ideas were. I think they worked very well together.”
While he enjoyed spending some time in the company of Scholes and Neville, McIlroy reported there had not been many birdies in their group. He might be saving them for when it really matters, but he’s defending this title with his tank running low. A two-week break after he hosts next week’s Irish Open at Royal County Down is badly needed before the US Open at Chambers Bay next month. “There wasn’t much sort of adrenaline in the body there today,” he admitted, “but, once I step on the first tee tomorrow and get a card in my hand, that will be different.”
Justin Rose, the world No 6, is the next highest-ranked player in the field due to Henrik Stenson having decided to sit out the event along with Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter. An absentee 12 months ago, McDowell is pleased to be back and is hoping it’s his turn to become a winner on a course that hasn’t been kind to him in the past. “I’ve got a love-hate relationship at Wentworth,” he said. “I love being here but hate leaving on a Friday.”