Search­ing for Per­fec­tion

New Zealand Golf Magazine - - FEATURE - WORDS BY JOHN HUGGAN

The year is 1973 and Jack Nick­laus is home alone. Show­ing on tele­vi­sion is the Bel­mont Stakes, the third and fi­nal leg of Amer­i­can horse rac­ing’s “Triple Crown.” Nick­laus has no real in­ter­est in the sport and barely knows which end of a horse eats, but watches any­way. Before the end of the race, which the immortal Sec­re­tariat won in a still-record time and by a phe­nom­e­nal 31 lengths, the great­est golfer of all-time is on his knees in front of the box. He is beat­ing the car­pet with his fists and he is in tears.

Days later, Nick­laus re­lates that same tale to rac­ing jour­nal­ist Hey­wood Hale Broun and won­ders why he would re­act in such a strange and emo­tional way to a mere horse race.

“That's easy,” says Broun. “You've been search­ing for sport­ing per­fec­tion your whole life and fi­nally you saw it.”

More than once or twice in his pro­fes­sional ca­reer, Rory McIl­roy has ap­proached a Sec­re­tariat-like level of per­for­mance. There was, for ex­am­ple, that eight-shot mar­gin of vic­tory in the 2011 US Open and a re­peat of that feat 14-months later at the USPGA Cham­pi­onship.

Like all true greats, McIl­roy has an in­nate abil­ity to make an end­lessly com­pli­cated game ap­pear sim­ple. Club in hand, he is Torvill and Dean on the ice; he is Frank Si­na­tra at the mi­cro­phone; and he is Lionel Messi with a ball at his feet. He has the po­ten­tial to raise a mere sport to art form, his even­tual sta­tus de­fined not by tour­na­ments won and lost but by - as was Nick­laus - the views of his op­po­nents and ad­mir­ers.

The now Olden and for­merly Golden Bear had about him a cer­tainty and a unique knowl­edge, as for­mer Open cham­pion Tom Weiskopf mem­o­rably com­mented: “Jack knows he is go­ing to beat you and more im­por­tantly he knows that you know he is go­ing to beat you. And he knows that you know he knows.”

“Jack told me he al­ways put a lot of pres­sure on him­self,” adds McIl­roy. “He ex­pected to play well. He ex­pected to be up there all the time. And he said he ex­pected me to do the same thing. So he said I need to put pres­sure on my­self. There's go­ing to be pres­sure from ev­ery­one else, so I have to make sure that

So he said I need to put pres­sure on my­self. There’s go­ing to be pres­sure from ev­ery­one else, so I have to make sure that I re­ally want it. I’ve got to go out there and ex­pect to play well and put pres­sure on my­self to play well. That’s what he did.”

I re­ally want it. I've got to go out there and ex­pect to play well and put pres­sure on my­self to play well. That's what he did.”

All of the above is an al­most per­fect sum­ma­tion of ev­ery­thing McIl­roy has gone through over a dis­ap­point­ing last few months. Take the first two days of the 146th Open Cham­pi­onship at Royal Birk­dale. For the first six holes, his play was at times a per­plex­ing mix­ture of hap­less and hope­less, bo­gey after bo­gey lit­ter­ing his card. For the next 30 holes he was for long pe­ri­ods all but flawless, re­act­ing to his (now for­mer) cad­die's al­ready immortal com­ment: “You're Rory McIl­roy. For f#@%'s sake, what are you do­ing?”

Stop me if this sounds fa­mil­iar. Lead­ing a ma­jor cham­pi­onship through 54 holes, the like­able young man with the mop-top hair­cut, the nor­mally ready grin and per­fect golf­ing man­ners shoots a dis­as­trous score and fin­ishes down the prize-list. In all of his post-round in­ter­views, de­spite his enor­mous dis­ap­point­ment, he be­haves and talks with great dig­nity and ma­tu­rity, a credit to his low-hand­i­cap fa­ther, a stick­ler for golf's rules and eti­quette.

No, we're not talk­ing about Rory circa Au­gusta Na­tional 2011, al­though the above sce­nario could well be ap­plied to the pre­co­cious young­ster in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of that all-but un­watch­able clos­ing 80 in the Masters. In­stead, just to show that his­tory does noth­ing if not re­peat it­self, the sub­ject is one Tom Wat­son. In 1974 at Winged Foot, the now eight-time ma­jor cham­pion led the US Open after 54-holes before ex­plod­ing to a clos­ing 79 and T-5. (One year later at Oak­mont, Wat­son led again, this time at the half­way mark, before sub­sid­ing to T-9 with rounds of 78 and 77).

Back then the main crit­i­cisms of the emerg­ing Wat­son's game were that his swing was a lit­tle long and loose and would there­fore never be con­sis­tent, and his er­ratic putting was way too ag­gres­sive for his own good. Again, sound fa­mil­iar?

Any­way, the point here is never panic. Yes, Rory ap­pears to be in the midst of a slump. But he re­mains a truly great player, one with that spe­cial and in­de­fin­able some­thing that sep­a­rates the very best from the rest.

The old Amer­i­can base­ball star Ted Wil­liams cared only that, when he walked by, peo­ple would say, “there goes the great­est hit­ter in the game.” By dint of the easy flow, rhythm and sheer beauty of his swing, McIl­roy dis­plays a sim­i­lar air of in­her­ent su­pe­ri­or­ity in a way that is beyond the likes of Lee West­wood, Mar­tin Kaymer and Luke Don­ald. Those men have all been ranked num­ber-one in the world, but it is hard to imag­ine fel­low pedes­tri­ans gasp­ing in awe as they walk by. McIl­roy has that qual­ity, while still re­tain­ing an en­dear­ing or­di­nar­i­ness.

He was al­ways meant to be a golfer. When his fa­ther Gerry first took his son to the Holy­wood club on the out­skirts of Belfast, his in­nate abil­ity was im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous. As was his ded­i­ca­tion. When the Holy­wood pro­fes­sional

In­stead, just to show that his­tory does noth­ing if not re­peat it­self, the sub­ject is one Tom Wat­son. In 1974 at Winged Foot, the now eight­time ma­jor cham­pion led the US Open after 54-holes before ex­plod­ing to a clos­ing 79 & T-5.

Michael Ban­non – still McIl­roy's coach – de­cided that, at age 11, his young charge should weaken what was a dan­ger­ously strong left-hand grip, the diminu­tive Rory went at it with a vengeance.

His mother Rosie tells of look­ing into Rory's bed­room. There he was, fast asleep, his arms out­side the bed­cov­ers and his hands res­o­lutely placed on the grip in a per­fectly neu­tral po­si­tion.

So for­get the re­cent missed cuts; and yes, for­get the way he butchered the front-nine at Royal Birk­dale on the open­ing day of this year's Open. And re­mem­ber what we are watch­ing is some­thing very spe­cial. En­joy the ride - the downs as well as the ups.

Rory McIl­roy.

Jack Nick­laus.

Tom Wat­son of the United States.

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