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It's Rory Time

Could the young Irishman really take over from Tiger Woods?

Posted Nov 17, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

rory mcilroy

Those of us who know Rory McIlroy, weren't in the least surprised at his decision to play the PGA Tour in the US next year.  Nor is it unexpected that he has regained pole position in his  challenge for the inaugural Race to Dubai title this weekend.

The words of his manager, Chubby Chandler at the Jack Nicklaus designed Ritz-Carlton Course at Dove Mountain, Tucson last February, keep coming to mind.  "People don't realise just how good Rory is," said Chandler with as much passion as he could muster.  Those of us who had watched him in Ireland from his early teens, however, didn't need any convincing.  When you saw a slip of a lad of 15 beat a full-strength field of mature amateurs to capture the West of Ireland Championship, you sensed you were witnessing something special.

Those who saw him as a 19-year-old in Tucson, got that feeling.  He beat Louis Oosthuisen and Hunter Mahan before crushing the experienced South African, Tim Clark, by 4 and 3 in the Accenture World Matchplay in which he went on to lose to the eventual winner, Geoff Ogivly, in the quarter-finals.  That was when Ernie Els was promted to remark:  "Rory will one day succeed Tiger Woods as the world number one."  For his part, Ogilvy predicted that McIlroy would be in the world's top-10 for "as long as he wants".

His second-place finish in the Dunhill Links Championship on October 5th, made him leader of the Race to Dubai with the opportunity of becoming, at 20, the youngest winner of the Order of Merit since 19-year-old Seve Ballesteros in 1976.  And when it seemed that Lee Westwood would head for Dubai in a commanding position, McIlroy rose to the challenge once more, with a second-place finish in Hong Kong last Sunday.

There were those in the US who questioned whether something had gone wrong with the World rankings when McIlroy made his debut there at number 17.  One jingoistic commentator famously asked: "How could somebody be ranked that highly when I haven't heard of him?"  By that stage, the lad had only one tournament victory to his credit, in the Dubai Desert Classic on February 1st.

While that breakthrough remains his only win on tour, there has been hugely significant progress over the last nine and a half months.  Like a share of 20th place behind Angel Cabrera on his US Masters debut last April; a share of 10th place behind Lucas Glover in his first appearance in the US Open in June and a share of 46th place on his debut as a professional in the Open Championship at Turnberry in July.

A performance to shake any remaining sceptic to the roots, however, came in the US PGA Championship at Hazeltine National in August, when he was a superb, tied third behind the winner, Y E Yang.  Here was splendid confirmation that with prodigious length, a high ball-flight and admirable competitive instincts, McIlroy had the tools to make a serious impact in the US.  I retain a vivid image of the climax of his Accenture match against Mahan when, facing a shot of 215 yards to the elevated final green on the Ritz-Carlton stretch, McIlroy got there with a gloriously struck seven iron.

It is equally fascinating to recall the disappointment of the player and his manager at the decision not to give him a sponsor's invitation last February into the Northern Telecom Open at Riviera CC, where he could have acclimatised before heading to Tucson.  Preference was given to the Japanese sensation, Ryo Ishikawa.

One assumes that LA officials wouldn't make the same mistake in successive years, especially in the light of McIlroy's development since then. In this context, it may be purely coincidental that his first American tournament of the New Year will not be in Los Angeles but, once again, in the Accenture in Tucson.  In fact it will be one of eight events he has planned for the US from February to May after he has started the year on the European Tour in Abu Dhabi, followed by the defence of the Dubai Desert Classic.

Irrespective of what develops in Dubai next weekend, when McIlroy will be attempting to bridge a 20-year gap back to fellow Irishman Ronan Rafferty's Order of Merit win in 1989, it can be said with reasonable certainty that he will be a very significant player on the world stage next year.  In fact people may gradually come to realise that he is, indeed, as good as Chandler has been telling us.

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