Kiawah Island: The US Ryder Cup captain has had trouble coming to terms with it, but anyone without the onerous mission of beating a team including the record-breaker next month had already accepted it unequivocally. Rory McIlroy is the best golfer in the world.
Davis Love would only refer to McIlroy as “one of the best players in the world”, which is an understatement almost as staggering as the scale of McIlroy’s US PGA win.
McIlroy has the ranking to confirm he is the top of the world, as well as the fame, the hero-worship, the records and the aura. On Monday, after a night of celebration at the Kiawah Island clubhouse, the second-youngest double major-winner since the war was fulfilling photo-shoot obligations for a sponsor before flying to Cincinnati to meet Caroline Wozniacki, his tennis-playing girlfriend.
In his wake, the 23 year-old left a trail of grand pronouncements and predictions and even a mindless Twitter argument about whom he should represent at the next Olympics. For McIlroy’s part, he was thinking no further ahead than the arms of his loved one and was not about to venture into the comparison debate.
“I’m not trying to emulate anyone or match anyone,” McIlroy said, after his eight-shot victory broke Jack Nicklaus’s US PGA record for largest winning margin by one stroke. “I’ve got my second major, which feels unbelievable, and I’ll be working towards my third. But first I just have to enjoy this moment.”
McIlroy was enjoying it right enough, upgrading his assessment of this season “from a B grade to an A-plus”. He talked about the sweetness of proving his doubters wrong, although in truth he is now happy to have gone through what he calls “my mini-slump” during which he missed four cuts from the five events flanking May and June.
“I needed to deal with the expectations every time I came to one of these tournaments,” he said. “Not just expectations of other people but expectations of myself. They were heightened since I won the US Open at Congressional.
“I was getting frustrated that I wasn’t living up to them. I came here with a different mindset this week — just to enjoy it and see what occurs.”
Team McIlroy were not surprised. His caddie believed this was a destruction waiting to happen. JP Fitzgerald was talking from experience as the Irishman was also on the bag last year when McIlroy bounced back from his Masters meltdown to win the US Open by the same eight-stroke margin.
Yet Kiawah was more significant, Fitzgerald claimed, as it not only proved his progress in coping with the spotlight, but also the progress in his game. “You could say he destroyed everyone at Congressional, but the conditions here were very different. You wouldn’t have thought they would suit him,” Fitzgerald said.
“He has this ability now to hit shots like the four-iron he held up against the wind on Friday. That wasn’t a shot he had before. It’s taken a long time to learn that, but he’s cracked it.”
Nobody, not even Tiger Woods, not even Nicklaus, won their first two majors by a collective margin of 16 shots. Even Woods must now accept that, if McIlroy is on his game, then he is playing for second. If Woods does not accept that, Padraig Harrington believes he should. “If Tiger turned up with his A game, the rest of us struggled to compete,” he said.
“Rory is now showing that, with his A game, everyone else is going to struggle to compete. Tiger needs his A game to come up against Rory. He’s just not going to beat him unless he has a big weekend.”
Three players since the war — Jack Nicklaus, Woods and Seve Ballesteros — won two majors before their 25th birthday and two of them went to win more than any players before.
McIlroy has not yet shown himself to be a prolific winner — he points out that he has “only four wins in America and two of them are majors” — but has shown himself to be a prolific major front-runner. Europe’s most successful golfer could only look on in admiration.
“Do I think Rory can become the first European to do the career Grand Slam?” Sir Nick Faldo said. “Well, yeah, I do. He’s got half of them, he’s right there.
“Anything can happen and you can’t predict anything. But he now knows and the rest of the field knows that when he is on, that’s it. He has that intensity. Why win by five when you can win by eight? That’s the way he must have been thinking, just like Tiger always did.”
Fitzgerald confirmed Faldo’s suspicion. Woods always retained his foot on the jugular until the blood ran dry and, although McIlroy is a far more amiable fellow, he has that ruthless instinct. Fitzgerald revealed: “Rory said on the last tee: ‘We won our first major by eight, let’s do it again.’ And he gets the birdie, with that 20-foot putt, to do it. Incredible.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t know he needed to win by eight to beat Jack’s record. Rory is a golf anorak.”
McIlroy knows the history and is making the history. It could just be the perfect combination.