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McIlroy Earned This

A great achievement for the Irishman

Posted Mar 07, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

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Early in January, I wrote that my wish for Rory McIlroy this year was that he would take his rightful place as the top-ranked player in the world, and that he’d win another major championship.  So, roll on Augusta National and his chance of emphatically burying any lingering memory of last year’s final-nine collapse.  Preferably in a head-to-head with Tiger Woods, coming down the stretch.

Back in 1990, when Nick Faldo had added the Open Championship at St Andrews to a second successive Masters title, I remember Jack Nicklaus being asked if Faldo was then the best player in the world.  Officially, Greg Norman held this particular distinction with Faldo ranked number two, but when the pair clashed in the third round over the Old Course, the Shark was comprehensively crushed by the methodical Englishman.

Anyway, Nicklaus’s reply was: “Does Faldo want to be world number one?  Does he want to do whatever is necessary to claim the title?  He has to want it before he can be it.”  In truth, none of the attending scribes could answer those questions, because Faldo stubbornly declined to throw any light on the subject.

When McIlroy stood on the tee at the short 15th in Palm Beach Gardens last Sunday afternoon, at the start of the fearsome “Bear Trap”, Woods had already completed a stunning final round of 62 to be the leader in the clubhouse on 10-under-par.  Nicklaus, who had moved into the commentary booth in time to observe the youngster hit his tee-shot into a bunker, heard Johnny Miller remark: “Looks like there may be nerves there.”  To which the Bear replied: “Sure there are. Tiger is making sure that Rory earns the number-one spot.  And that’s how it should be.”  

It was a fascinating situation, with the man who was the world’s number-one in an unofficial list from 1968 to 1978, commenting on the 16th player to hold the distinction, since it gained official status in 1986. And though it might seem somewhat parochial, people in my neck of the woods are rather pleased that an Irishman has reached such dizzy heights.

He has emerged from a remarkable group of young players making their mark on the world stage.  Where only 12 tournament professionals aged 28 or under were in the world’s top-100 at the end of 2001, that figure has almost doubled to a current 22. Ten years ago, Sergio Garcia, David Howell, Adam Scott and Paul Casey were the only under-25s in the top-100.  Now, McIlroy is joined by much gifted young contemporaries as Italy’s gifted 18-year-old, Matteo Manassero, Jason Day of Australia, Ryo Ishikawa (Japan), Kim Kyung-Tae (Korea) and Keegan Bradley and Rickie Fowler from the US.   

Prior to 1986, a sort of International Management Group in-house arrangement dated back to 1968 when the world’s first top-10 players, in order, were: 1 Jack Nicklaus; 2 Arnold Palmer; 3 Billy Casper; 4 Gary Player; 5 Bob Charles; 6 Julius Boros; 7 Neil Coles; 8 Peter Thomson; 9 Frank Beard; 10 Kel Nagle.  As it happened, Nicklaus was number-one for 10 straight years; Tom Watson succeeded him from 1978 to 1982 and Seve Ballesteros then took over for three years until the official rankings came into being.  

Though Ronan Rafferty achieved admirable prominence during the 1980s, it was 2001 before Darren Clarke achieved something of an Irish breakthrough by reaching ninth in the world.  A year later, Padraig Harrington came in at number seven.  Since then, Graeme McDowell and McIlroy have completed a quartet of Irish players to claim lengthy periods among the world’s elite.  Now, the 22-year-old Holywood star has reached the pinnacle.  And he has done it in such an impressive manner as to suggest he will feel entirely comfortable there.

Which has to do essentially with his own expectations of himself. When most golfing lads of 10 were having wild dreams about walking in the footsteps of Nicklaus, Ballesteros, Faldo or Woods as the world’s top player, McIlroy was having the same dreams.  A crucial difference, however, was that the figure he imagined himself being was Rory McIlroy.  Special people think that way.

- Dermot Gilleece

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