European Ryder Cup skipper Paul McGinley singled out Rory McIlroy’s loyalty and single mindedness as key to his incredible dominance this season.
The Dubliner, who will be looking to McIlroy to lead Europe to a hat-trick of Ryder Cup victories at Gleneagles next month, insists that even he learned new things about the world No 1 having watched him win three massive events in a row.
“You don’t see it when you speak to him one on one,” McGinley said of the new, ultra-focussed McIlroy. “But when you watch him play on TV, you see the focus, you see his eyes, you see how he hones in on a shot that he knows is important and that he can pull it off.
“I have learned a lot watching him the last two weeks. This is a Rory McIlroy at a different level that I’ve ever seen him at before.”
McGinley wondered how McIlroy — who loves to play at a fast pace — would deal with being forced to wait on every shot as Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler chased him down in the group in front in the final round of the weather-delayed US PGA.
But like the wave of criticism that crashed over the Holywood star last year and in previous seasons when he lost form and direction, he was able to remain true to himself and focus on the job in hand.
“He was able to channel the energy into the right place,” McGinley said. “The delays could have been aggravating and annoying but he was able to turn then into a positive and bounce back. It was difficult playing behind those two guys and they were playing fantastic. As he said himself, he gutted that out and it was a tremendous win.
“All credit to him. It’s great for Rory, it’s great for Europe and its great for the European Tour. Long may it continue for Rory. He’s very focussed at the moment. He’s got a great attitude and whatever it is he has, Rory should bottle it because it’s the secret.”
McGinley has always been fiercely loyal to McIlroy, whose public support for his candidacy turned the Ryder Cup captaincy battle in his favour.
And he points to McIlroy’s own loyalty and determination to remain true to his back room team — especially his caddie JP Fitzgerald and his swing coach Michael Bannon — when he was in crisis just over 12 months ago.
“He defended them very strongly and all credit to him for that,” McGinley said. “He is a loyal boss and a loyal friend and I think he’s got himself surrounded with some really good friends too. A couple from Ireland were over and part of the entourage and they all have a good time and are very focussed on Rory and he’s very focussed on his career.”
McIlroy is impressed by the steely determination McIlroy has shown in recent months and especially on Sunday, when he fell three strokes off the lead with nine holes to play.
What impresses him even more is the way that McIlroy has been able to fend off questions about beating Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major wins by insisting he wasn’t chasing anyone’s records and just wanted to add to his major tally one at a time.
“I think it is a wonderful way of staying in the present and one of the reasons when Rory is so focussed at the moment,” McGinley said. “Long may that continue. He’s got it and bottled it. He really is a class act.
“He spoke earlier in the year about somebody stepping up and taking on the mantle [as the face of golf] and it looks as if he has done so.”
When Rory McIlroy took a two-shot lead into the weekend at Valhalla he was asked about the keys to his amazing summer.
The break up with Caroline Wozniacki, he admitted, was a major factor. But it was more than just a factor in terms of allowing him to focus totally on his game, it also allowed him to circle the wagons in terms of his entourage.
“Obviously there's a lot of people around me who keep me on an even keel,” he said. “My mum and dad are obviously the two biggest influences on my life and I've got a great bunch of friends from home and I've got a great team around me.
"They are the people that I confide in and the people that I can tell everything to, and it's great to have a solid bunch of people like that around you that you can rely on.”
As he jetted out of Louisville on a private jet on Sunday night, the Ulsterman tweeted a picture of some members of this inner circle.
And among those grinning back at the camera were his coach, his caddie, his father, his best friend and his tour manager — in short, it was the entourage that’s been with him through thick and thin.
While there is clearly a strategy in place in terms of management of McIlroy's image — a vital ingredient in the management of any sports star — it has become far more natural in recent months as all the players in involved move forward.
The staid press conferences, such as the one he gave before the Honda Classic earlier this year, appear to be a thing of the past. Naturally, gratuitous criticism gets short shrift but as McIlroy has grown into his own skin since going out on his own, he has also become more seamlessly integrated with the people around him, clearly for the better.
The strategy in terms of handling his image is now far more polished and natural with hot topics being handled, and ticked off the list, one by one.
The father — Gerry McIlroy
Rory McIlroy’s mother Rosie was the first to run onto the green at Hoylake to congratulate him on his Open Championship victory and remains his rock. But his father Gerry is more than just Dad to the four-time major champion. He's the man who gave him his first club at just 18 months and caddied for him throughout his amateur career. He's the central figure behind Rory McIlroy Inc, the vehicle created to handle all of McIlroy’s affairs following the acrimonious split with Horizon Sports Management in the spiring of 2013 and the person he relies on most for advice.
The coach — Michael Bannon
Apart from his parents, McIlroy relies on no-one more than the former Holywood Golf Club professional who taught him the game.
And as McIlroy admitted on Sunday, it’s a relationship that has matured in recent years as the PGA professional has become as much a mentor as a coach but all the while leaving McIlroy to take the plaudits while remaining in the background.
“it's not just about the golf swing,” McIlroy said. “It's about course management. It's about strategy… When I was a teenager, even the early part of my career as a pro, it was all just about the technical stuff. Now that he travels with me a little bit more and he sees me play more on the golf course, our conversations are more about strategy or course management or hitting certain shots at the right time."
Nothing will change in that regard as McIlroy explained on Sunday.
“If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That's my motto. I've always been that way. I feel like the work that I've put into my golf swing from the age of 15 to 20 is going to stand to me throughout my career.”
The best friend — Harry Diamond
McIlroy and Diamond have been pals since they were amateurs at Holywood Golf Club and at nearly five years his senior, the Belfast nightclub owner is something of a big brother to the world No 1. Fiercely loyal, he politely turns down media requests for comment on his friend and along with Mitchell Tweedie and Ricky McCormick, remains a constant in McIlroy’s life and keeps him grounded and connected with home.
The caddie — JP Fitzgerald
When Padraig Harrington was winning his second major at Royal Birkdale, Rory McIlroy was sitting at home preparing his next move. Caddie JP Fitzgerald was the man handed the job on the recommendation of Chubby Chandler and it’s proved to be a match made in heaven.
“He may not be the best caddie in the world, but he’s the best caddie for Rory,” Chandler would comment later on a bagman who has worked with Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and Ernie Els.
McIlroy has always defended his man, especially in the face of criticism. Needless to say, they have now become firm friends
The tour manager — Sean O’Flaherty
A Trinity College computer science graduate, O’Flaherty was a low handicap amateur who went on to caddie for close friend Stephen Browne on tour. They ended up working together in financial services before O’Flaherty moved to Browne’s former management company, Horizon Sports Management as a "Player Liaison Manager" in January 2012.
He was handed the task of travelling with McIlroy and having formed a bond, it was no surprise that McIlroy took him on when the split occurred with Horizon last year. Utterly loyal to his current employer, he enjoys the trust not just of McIlroy but his father Gerry and the two other principals in Rory McIlroy Inc, MD Donal Casey, a actuary by trade and former strategic advisor on McIlroy matter at Horizon, and Barry Funston, a family friend from Holywood who now heads up the Rory Foundation.
Other employees at Rory McIlroy Inc include Barbara Iseli, a former assistant at Horizon Sports Management.
With the split from Wozniacki and the decision to declare for Ireland for the Olympic Games just two of the hot topics that have been headline news worldwide in recent months, public relations consultant Terry Prone of the Communications Clinic has also had an important advisory role to play.