America falls in love with Rory
States aflutter for 'imperfect' new Holywood hero
SO Rory McIlroy went for dinner at the White House yesterday. To complete his arrival in the sporting stratosphere, golf's world No1 was selected among the 1,000 guests who garlanded President Obama's state reception for the English prime minister.
Front-row seat at the Miami Heat, a banquet chez Barack at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- oh, and the little matter of his 11th top-five finish since August sprinkled in between.
You have to like the way this boy rolls.
Then again, we might expect nothing less from a 22-year-old fast becoming an adopted American icon.
While the PGA Tour said sayonara to McIlroy after last weekend's Cadillac Championship, at least until the Masters in three weeks' time, the US sports networks remained aflutter with his every move.
Would he join tennis belle Caroline Wozniacki at her next event in Miami? How much reconnoitring would he plan at Augusta? How many glasses of Florida Punch would he sip with Jack Nicklaus on the terrace of the Bear's Club?
As he chowed down on the White House canapes last night, McIlroy had much upon which to reflect.
The setting was rather more august than the Dundonald Omniplex, the Belfast cinema where he had watched the new Mission Impossible film with his friends only weeks earlier. And yet, suddenly, this son of Holywood found himself gazing at the doors to the Rose Garden.
McIlroy has inspired a sense of wonderment in his American audience, in part because of his imperfect packaging.
In the course of his eight-stroke triumph at Congressional, Sally Jenkins, columnist for the Washington Post, memorably depicted him as a "shambling, dishevelled working-class Northern Irish kid with a swing like a butter knife".
He might have already boasted high-end sartorial endorsements, with his Oakley shades and Audemars Piquet watches, but his jaunty stride and half-heartedly tucked-in shirts betrayed a touch of the playground tearaway.
These creases in his image are central to McIlroy's transatlantic appeal.
Americans tend to expect top sportsmen to look as if they have stepped straight from the set of Sweet Valley High, in the fashion of Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos quarterback who owes his colossal popularity to the combination of a chiselled jaw and a neat line in evangelical Christianity.
The Ulsterman has shot down that archetype as much by his lack of poster-child looks as by his freewheeling attitude to the game. "I'm a grip-it-and-rip-it kind of guy," he once told a reporter desperate for the inside track on his swing.
But the facade of carefree abandon is crumbling. He is 22, with a tennis star girlfriend and his eyes set on renting a condominium in West Palm Beach.
And already, there are signs that McIlroy is attracting shades of the Tiger Woods treatment. For each round in Miami last week, he was accompanied on the Blue Monster course by two uniformed City of Doral police officers. Not since the height of Woods fever, when the American teed off with half a squadron at his side, has a golfer carried such a conspicuous security detail.
One hopes that the key members of McIlroy's retinue, in particular father Gerry and agent Conor Ridge, will protect him.
He lies at a key juncture on the path from protege to idol. Nine months ago in Bethesda, Maryland, he prevailed at Congressional, the course of presidents.
Yesterday's White House engagement proved he had grown just as comfortable in the company of presidents, too.