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Friday 21 September 2018

McIlroy thrust in spotlight

US Open star faces fresh test of maturity as victory sees popularity soar to new level

What next for Rory McIlroy? It is the question everybody wants to know the answer to. And perhaps it says so much about the extraordinary impact the young Ulsterman made with his extraordinary US Open victory that golf's biggest question mark no longer follows the name "Tiger Woods".

The immediate response is that Ant and Dec are next for Rory McIlroy. Today the 22-year-old will join the chirpy Geordie duo in a London studio to record an episode of 'Red or Black?', Simon Cowell's new game show. Ant and Dec should feel honoured. McIlroy declined the opportunity to go on Letterman last night, the most-watched chat show in America.

Yesterday, after a night of celebration in the wake of his eight-shot triumph, McIlroy boarded a 6.15am flight from Washington to Cape Cod to play at a sponsor's day. After Ant and Dec he will be guest of honour at the golf club in Holywood and the hero's homecoming party is sure to be boisterous.

Darren Clarke, one of McIlroy's mentors, was not about to miss it -- he has pulled out of this week's European Tour event in Munich. Clarke sent his friend, and International Sports Management stablemate, a text before he teed off on Sunday. "Show them how good you are," it read. Four hours later, McIlroy had done exactly that, taking the fewest number of shots in 115 years of the US Open, and then his mobile beeped again. This time it was Rafael Nadal, the world No1 tennis player, passing on his congratulations.

It is that sort of living legend with whom McIlroy will be keeping company from now on as he tries to justify all the pronouncements. of him filling the void left by Woods' struggles and challenging Jack Nicklaus on the major charts.

For now he can simply try to survive the next fortnight of attention and then travel down to Sandwich to begin his Open preparations. McIlroy will withdraw from next week's French Open to avoid fatigue and will spend a few days reconnaissance on the Kent links before the crowds show up. "He might not turn up then until Tuesday night," said his manager, Chubby Chandler.

That will become the way for McIlroy as he deals with the orbiting levels of fame. It was one of the pieces of advice Nicklaus imparted in the chat they had at the Memorial tournament in Ohio last month. The meeting was clearly influential as shown by the transformation between McIlroy in that final-round 80 of the Masters and 70 days later at Congressional. "He worked out what he did wrong at Augusta," said his closest handler, Stuart Cage.

It will be a genuinely scary proposition if McIlroy can recreate this mix of maturity and metronomic magnificence on a regular basis. Despite a winning ratio which remains bafflingly low, there is no reason why this turbo-boost to his confidence will not soar him to a new level. Certainly, McIlroy has proved himself a major animal, having finished in the top three in three of the last four majors and having held a one-shot lead with nine holes to go in the other. Consider that he has led for 135 of the 144 major holes completed this year and you will understand the magnitude of his performances. What odds Royal St George's witnessing the second instalment of the "Roryslam"?

Typically, the bookies are attempting to cash in on the hype, one pricing him up at an absurd 3-1. What a prospect it would be if Woods somehow resurrected his form to provide a challenge.



Fanaticism

But the 35-year-old is wearing an immobilising boot to protect an injured Achilles and the fears grow that he will miss his second major in succession. Nobody wants that, least of all McIlroy. "I've watched Tiger over the last 15 years and growing up, I always had putts to beat Tiger in the Masters or US Open," he said. "So it would be great to go down the stretch with him because I've never really had that experience. I hope he can get healthy and can get back playing good golf, because golf is a better place with him playing well."

It certainly is, especially when the television contracts are up for renewal. It used to be so simple for Tim Finchem, the chief executive of the US Tour. But now not only is Tiger derailed, but the US Tour doesn't have McIlroy.

The fanaticism with which America has taken to him in this tale of redemption has almost defied belief and Finchem will pull out all the stops to entice him to play more in the States. Expect the strict membership rules to be changed to accommodate him, expect the once unbudgeable to bend over backwards. For the first time in history America has gone without a winner in five majors, meaning the genial, curly-mopped Irishman is the only show in town. But Finchem may well be left disappointed, if not downright perplexed.



Touched

McIlroy's indifference to appearing on Letterman portrays his indifference to America, and although he was deeply touched by the reception at Congressional he wants to remain an international player, based in the comfort zone of his hometown. He has had a brief taste of the "US Tour treadmill" and did not enjoy the experience.

The US Tour already knows this. Chandler (pictured) has informed them that both McIlroy and Lee Westwood -- who racked up his fifth top three in seven majors -- will again be absent from the Players Championship, the Tour's flagship event, next year. "We don't work only around money," said Chandler. "They make enough of that."

McIlroy will make more, and the predictions of his money haul are as inevitably as excitable as those of his major haul. "Marketing specialists" are anticipating him becoming sport's first billion-pound man; all too soon Woods will be a comparative pauper. Everyone wants a piece of the McIlroy magic.

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