McIlroy leaves childish things aside

The last time I saw Rory McIlroy with tears in his eyes, he was sitting in his BMW in the car park at Rosses Point with his girlfriend Holly Sweeney by his side.

It was back in the dim and distant past (April 2007 to be exact), when Ireland’s most recentl major winner was Fred Daly and Tiger Woods had a 12-point lead over Jim Furyk at the top of the world rankings.

It’s safe to say that times have changed radically since then, especially for McIlroy.

A short-priced favourite to emulate Joe Carr and win the West of Ireland Amateur Open for the third time in a row that year, he’d just lost to Paul Cutler on the 18th in the quarter-finals. In fairness to the then 17-year old from Holywood, he held back his tears long enough to zip down the window of his new motor to talk about what he considered to be the toughest defeat of his career.

“I didn’t putt my best this week,” he said, still visibly upset. “I didn’t hole the putts that I usually do and that was the big difference. I am really disappointed. This was the one I really wanted to win and I didn’t do it.”

He was refreshingly honest that day and it was good to hear that voice again last week, when he relived his incredible season in a media sit-down in Dubai. It was good to hear that something still remains of McIlroy’s teenage spirit.

He cried again this year, he explained to a group of mainly UK-based reporters. Almost to a man, his listeners led their stories with his tears of frustration and pain on Masters Monday.

The stories in today’s papers go on to point out how much McIlroy has matured this season. It’s undeniable. The world No 2’s superb comeback win at the US Open was a truly magnificent display of mental strength. He was also motivated by his desire to prove to the media and himself, that he was not a choker.

What was truly impressive was the way he acknowledged his weaknesses and worked on them - especially, his putting - while being subjected to intense media and public scrutiny.

Since Congressional McIlroy has been criticised most often, not for his occasional lapses on the greens, but for his ill-thought out declarations before the press. The first of them came at Sandwich, where he rose to the bait dangled by a clever reporter and railed against the British weather. The second came in Killarney, where he belittled TV commentator Jay Townsend on twitter and again in public for daring to criticise his course management and his caddie.

Juding by how poorly some of our politicians deal with media issues, it’s probably unfair to criticise a 22-year old sportsman for putting his foot firmly in his mouth from time to time. And while McIlroy has since held up his hands and confessed that he’s made mistakes, especially in the Townsend controversy, it’s no major surprise that he’s lost the plot occasionally.

He acknowledged in Akron in August that leading a normal home life in Belfast had become close to impossible since the Masters and his subsequent US Open victory. He spoke about 24-hour security, prowlers in the grounds of his home and hinted at other sinister goings on.

We have yet to hear the real truth about what life has really been like in the McIlroy goldfish bowl over the past few years. It’s no secret that he always uses the back door when he goes clubbing with his buddies these days. When he goes up to Holywood Golf Club to see his friends in the pro’s shop, he parks his car around the back of the clubhouse.

One wonders if there is any truth in the rumour that he got bashed over the head with a beer bottle on a night out earlier this year. And what of the police chaperone at Killarney during this year’s Irish Open? Why was he so aloof and ill at ease that week? Why was he so defensive about the Team GB or Team Ireland question at the US PGA?

Perhaps he was simply saying, “Enough is enough. I need my space. I’m just a golfer. I’m just Rory from Holywood.”

Listening to him in recent months, it appears that McIlroy has reluctantly accepted that that boy has gone forever, a victim of his own dreams and the circus that goes with big time professional sports in the 21st century.

If Rory still has some Eminem on his iPod, he will identify with some of the sentiments here:

So this is it…
This is what I wished for
Just isn’t how I envisioned it
Famed to the point of imprisonment
I just thought the shit’d be different…

Blocking out the white noise is his next challenge. And while we await his encore at the Masters next April, he can enjoy being young Rory again, if only for a short while.

Can’t say he hasn’t earned it. He’ll be a man long enough.