Brian Keogh in Miami
Rory McIlroy chipped in for eagle on the tenth hole at Doral’s Blue Monster, then casually signed autographs for the healthy gallery that was following his practice round fourball ahead of the $8.5 million WGC-CA Championship.
But what happened next surprised even the Holywood teenager, whose status has been transformed from that of a virtual unknown into the second coming and the heir apparent to Tiger Woods in the space of a fortnight.
After signing a shirt for one fan, who said: “Hey Rory, do me a favour, beat Tiger this week”, the 19-year-old was handed a large envelope by representatives of the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, an invitation begging the golf’s hottest ticket to tee it up in their event in Texas at the end of May.
McIlroy will almost certainly be playing the European Open in Kent that week but it is a measure of how popular he has now become in the US that a tournament director for one of the PGA Tour’s biggest events should traipse across a golf course to try and attract the “Boy Wonder” to Forth Worth.
McIlroy is thoroughly enjoying his new found status as an American idol but he’s wise enough to realise that he is not Tiger Woods, even if golf fans in the traditionally Latin-loving enclave of Miami are hoping he see him follow his run to the quarter-finals in the WGC-Accenture Match Play and his share of 13th place in last week’s Honda Classic with another swashbuckling performance.
“It’s great. It’s cool,” McIlroy said of his new-found fame in the US. “Two weeks ago I wasn’t really known in America. Now, a lot of people recognise me. They walk up and say that it’s great to see me over here and that they enjoy the way I play. But I have no expectations this week. If I play well, that’s great. If I don’t, I don’t. It’s great just to be out here.”
With Woods making his comeback to strokeplay golf in an event he has won six times, McIlroy knows that beating the world number one this week could very well be good enough to give him in first PGA Tour victory.
Tiger's return has dominated talk so far this week with Padraig Harrington’s mental coach Dr Bob Rotella berating players like Anthony Kim, Trevor Immelman, Stewart Cink and Justin Leonard for deferring to the game’s top player in a light-hearted Nike commercial on his comeback from injury.
The quartet are shown laughing and feeling good about their recent successes as the song “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" plays in the background. But as Woods strolls into the locker room, the laughing stops and they look at their shoes in embarrassed silence. The message is simple: Tiger’s back and the fun and games are over.
“Hated it,” said Rotella. "One of the worst commercials I've ever seen in my life.”
Cow-towing to Woods, even if it is meant to be a joke, is a no-no as far as Harrington’s psychologist is concerned. But while McIlroy knows that he could conceivably beat Woods this week, he is under no illusions about his chances of outstripping the greatest player in the modern game.
“I’ve heard all the talk recently. But I don’t really think about it,” McIlroy said of his status as the next Tiger. “I don’t think I am going to do what Tiger has done. I might. Anything is possible. But I really don’t think I will. Hopefully I can just do well and if I can win a few majors up the road, it will be great.”
McIlroy believes that if Woods plays well this week, he’ll probably shoot four 67s. “I’ll just have to shoot three 67s and a 66,” he added with a grin before explaining that Doral’s Blue Monster course would not be on his list of favourite courses.
“It is big and wide open and tough to get a good visual of the line on some holes,” he said. “The last few holes are great though and I have become good at adapting to different conditions.”
World number two Sergio Garcia and Colombia’s Camilo Villegas are well aware of McIlroy’s rapid rise in the game and the pressures he faces now that he is being touted as the next Tiger.
“He reminds me of myself around 10 or 12 years ago,” said Garcia, who declared that he’d rather win a major that take over as world number one this week. “I played golf the same way - loose and without fear. He is a really great player as well all know and he is also a really nice kid so I am just delighted that things are working out so well for him. It is important to start well and build up confidence on the tour and things will be easier afterwards for him after that.
“Comparisons with Tiger are very nice but they can distract you from the right path. I think Rory is a kid who has got his head screwed on and knows what he is doing.”
Villegas reckons the Holywood star could do worse than buy a set of ear-plugs to combat the hype machine.
“I’ve seen him on television and seen his results and he is a quality player,” Villegas said. “Every new young player who comes out gets compared to Tiger so you just have to block your ears, set your own goals and work hard to make them a reality.”
Brian Keogh in Miami