SANDWICH, England (AP) — Rory McIlroy slipped into his seat without great fanfare Tuesday, his presence detected by a sudden burst of camera shutters when the photographers realized the star of this British Open had arrived.
It was his first time at a news conference since that Sunday evening at Congressional, and it all looked familiar except that the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland no longer had the shiny U.S. Open trophy at his side.
In its place were expectations of many more majors to follow, perhaps starting with this one.
With a record-setting performance in the major billed as golf’s toughest test, McIlroy has emerged as the favorite to join an elite group of players to capture the U.S. Open and British Open in the same year.
McIlroy knew it was quite an achievement, setting scoring records at the U.S. Open and winning by eight shots. Only in the three weeks he has spent at home has the magnitude started to sink in.
“I didn’t realize how much of a fuss it would create or how much of a buzz,” he said. “It’s been nice. I thought it was great for me to win the U.S. Open, win my first major. The support that I’ve had from people back home, from everyone all over the world, has been pretty overwhelming.”
It was impossible to miss on Tuesday. It almost felt as though Tiger Woods were at the Open, still on top of his game.
There were more media in the room waiting for McIlroy than those who actually listened to Luke Donald, who is No. 1 in the world and coming off a four-shot win in the Scottish Open. They stood against every wall in the room and were three-deep at the doorway.
This is the new world of McIlroy. And he says he’s ready for it.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” McIlroy said. “I’ve always wanted to be a successful golfer and be one of the best players in the world and to win major championships. If I have to put up with a few things along the way, then I’m fine with that.”
McIlroy hasn’t played since he won the U.S. Open, taking time off to catch his breath, go to Wimbledon and a heavyweight fight in Germany, then getting back to work on his game.
It won’t be the same test this week.
Royal St. George’s is not quite as vicious as it was in 2003 when Ben Curtis was the only player to break par, even though the wind was not up to its typical strength that year. McIlroy did most of his preparation on the links course last week, so he missed the big blow Tuesday that showed just how tough this can be.
On the par-3 11th hole, which measures 243 yards, Dustin Johnson knew deep down it would take a driver to reach the green into such a wind, but pride wouldn’t let him. He crushed a 3-wood and still came up short of the green. Phil Mickelson hit driver, then looked back at Johnson and Rickie Fowler and said, “I don’t know why you guys laid up.”
Donald couldn’t reach the fairway on the 564-yard seventh hole, a carry of only about 225 yards. On another hole, he hit 7-iron from 119 yards because he didn’t want the ball to get up in the air.
The U.S. Open was soft this year because of rain. The British Open is firm, and bouncy as ever at Royal St. George’s.
“Today it really tested everything,” Donald said. “I still think the guy that can scrap it around and make pars from off the green, hole some long putts and kind of keep the momentum going, especially when it’s very tough like it was today, then that’s the key to playing well.”
McIlroy did everything right at Congressional, which is why so much is expected of him. He still believes, like so many other athletes, that the public’s expectations are not as great as his own. Still, this is a different week, and a very difference major.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to play that sort of golf every week I tee it up — I hope I do, but I can’t see it,” he said. “Yeah, expectations are going to be high. I have high expectations myself. I want to go out there and try and win a lot of golf tournaments and win majors and become the best player in the world. All I need to do is focus on my game, and if I can do that, I know my good golf is good enough to win plenty more tournaments.”
But there is something special about this kid.
It’s not only his simple, fundamentally sound swing, but the way he draws people to him because he looks like he’s having so much fun. Even as his celebrity grows, McIlroy appears to stay grounded. In his final preparation for the British Open, he went to Royal County Down at twilight, carried his own bag and played nine holes with his father tagging along.
“The thing about Rory is that he plays golf with a real flair and a real charisma, and I think fans are drawn to that,” Mickelson said. “He plays it with this youthful exuberance, and it’s fun to watch and see somebody play golf like that and really enjoy it. He played beautifully, obviously, and ended up winning. But it’s not just how he won with his great play, but also the way he interacts with people.”
McIlroy became the youngest major champion since Woods won his first major at Augusta National in 1997 when he was 21. The last four major champions are all in their 20s, the first time that has happened in more than a century.
“The ages seem to be dropping a bit,” Masters champion Charl Schwartzel said. “Tiger Woods was young when he was starting to win, and he kept on winning until all his injuries came up.”
Colin Montgomerie was among those who said it was harder to win majors in the Woods era because it seemed as if he won two every year, and that left only two others for everyone else to fight over.
There might be some truth to that. Woods, who is not playing while recovering from leg injuries, has gone three years without winning a major.
“There is no real, one dominant player right now, and I suppose that makes it a little bit more open,” Donald said.
There is one in particular who seems to be getting all the attention. McIlroy still only has one major, the same number as Trevor Immelman, although so much more is expected of him.
They have been talking about McIlroy since he was a freckled-face teenager, knowing big things were to come. It all might appear to be a quite a burden for someone so young, although Boy Wonder doesn’t seem the least bit flustered. He is thriving in the spotlight.
“I’m the sort of person that likes to have people watching,” McIlroy said. “I like to have a little bit of a buzz in the atmosphere around the group, and I’ll enjoy it. It’s not going to be the first time that I’ve played in front of big crowds. Last time I played a competitive round of golf, I had a pretty big crowd following me.”