This article appeared in Hong Kong Tatler
If Rory McIlroy is feeling the pressure of being golf’s hottest young property since Tiger Woods first emerged on the scene, he is not showing it. The 22-year-old has come a very long way in rather a short space of time – quite literally in the case of his participation in last month’s Shui On Land China Golf Challenge, a seven-day whistle-stop tour of seven Chinese golf courses, including Caesars in Macau, but also in terms of his own bigger picture.
Little over four years ago McIlroy was still an amateur. Nowadays he’s the youngest winner of the US Open in almost a century – in June he wiped the floor with the field at Congressional Country Club in Maryland – and is currently being afforded all the fuss befitting that accomplishment, by sponsors, fans, media and tournament organisers alike.
It has been a good year for him, but it’s not one that’s about to fizzle out quietly. The McIlroy brand has been undergoing some serious exposure and there’s plenty more of it to come before 2011 is through, with commitments in Asia – including the Hong Kong Open at the beginning of December – dominating a heavy schedule.
And so one cannot but be struck by the diminutive Northern Irishman’s chirpiness as he bounds into a room overlooking a neon Macau evening to meet Tatler. He’s spent the last hour or so shaking hands with various people in suits in the lobby of the Venetian and charming inquisitors at a packed media conference. How’s that part of life among golf’s elite working out, then?
“Things have calmed down a little bit,” he insists. “The first tournament I played after winning the US Open was the British Open and I probably just wasn’t quite ready for the welcome I received, the attention, the hype and everything. Winning one of the majors at 22 – not a lot of golfers have done that. I think Seve [Ballesteros] won one at 22, as did Jack [Nicklaus], so that’s a nice bit of company. It does bring its own pressures and attention, but I feel as if I’ve adjusted to that now. For me, it’s actually nice to get on a golf course because you sort of get away from everything else. It’s where I feel most at home.”
Not that he is afforded too many opportunities to play the links courses of his native land this weather. After the week in China, he was due to fly to Bermuda for the Grand Slam of Golf, a showcase involving only the year’s four major winners – of which group this year, astonishingly, two others (Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke), also hail from Northern Ireland. This month he will play at the World Golf Championship in Shanghai, then at the strokeplay World Cup of Golf at Mission Hills Haikou in Hainan – where he will partner McDowell – and after Hong Kong he has further engagements in Dubai and Thailand.
“It’s important for the development of the game in Asia that there are now so many big tournaments,” he says. “In China, golf is going to become so big, partly because of its inclusion at the Olympics in 2016. The point of doing the China Golf Challenge was to help promote the game here, and for the outside world as well, to showcase what China has to offer in golf. There are some really fantastic courses.”
The notion of establishing a fifth golf major, to be played in Asia, has been mooted recently. McIlory is sceptical about it happening any time soon, but says: “I think it’s good that there are now so many events co-sanctioned by the European and Asian Tours. You even see the PGA Tour now moving into Asia – they have a tournament in Malaysia and are trying to branch out in this market. Personally I love playing golf in this part of the world.”
In fact, he claims to reserve special affection for Hong Kong, where he was beaten in a play-off in 2008 by Lin Wen-tang. “I played a couple of events as an amateur in Hong Kong and now the Hong Kong Open is probably one of my favourite events of the year,” he says. “And because I keep coming back, I get to know it better every time – restaurants that I like, places to go.”
Life on tour, he acknowledges, is not always conducive to letting down his considerable head of hair or sampling local cultures, but there is a sense that for all his determination to succeed on the golf course – he talks of becoming the best player in the world in the next three years – McIlroy is out to enjoy life along the way. Currently that involves making time for his new girlfriend, the world No.1-ranked tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, with whom he plans to spend a fortnight in the Maldives this month between tournaments. You might be forgiven for suspecting the sponsors of hijacking Cupid’s bow, but it’s clear the pair have no wish to parade themselves as some kind of sporting power couple.
“We have very similar lifestyles, so I think we understand one another more than anything else,” McIlroy says. “If I shoot a bad score, I feel as if she knows what to say. And you know what she would like to hear if she has a bad result. We’re both working hard to be the best in our sport, but you have to some sort of life outside that.”
If he needs a pep talk from a fellow golfer, on the other hand, McIlroy need only turn to the greatest of them all. Jack Nicklaus, who went on to win 17 more majors after his first fresh-faced triumph in 1962, has invited him to spend the beginning of next year practicing at his club in Florida. McIlroy has already proven his lack of physical stature to be no hindrance to his game, but perhaps there is still something to be said for standing on the shoulders of giants.