Rory Era? McIlroy focused on second major title

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, hits a drive on the sixth hole during a practice round for the PGA Championship golf tournament Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011, at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga.

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. - If this truly is the dawning of the Rory Era, well, don’t tell McIlroy himself. The only thing he’s focused on this week is his pursuit of a second major title.

In the wake of his record-breaking performance at Congressional in June, it was easy to anoint McIlroy, 22, as golf’s new king, supplanting Tiger Woods, who turns 36 in December. The Ulsterman, after all, is personable, witty, smart. His swing is breathtaking, and his accent is lovely, and when he walks around the course he acknowledges fans, not stares a hole through them. That makes a difference. At the very least, McIlroy’s eight-shot romp at the U.S. Open signaled the emergence of a refreshing new star in golf.

If not a new era.

“(Woods) is still the biggest attraction in the game of golf, so I don’t think that has changed at all,” McIlroy said Wednesday during his news conference at the PGA Championship. “The only thing that’s changed is that he just isn’t winning as much as he did back then. But that’s not to say he won’t do it again.

“I don’t think it’s quite a new era yet until guys start to win majors more regularly like he did.”

This would seem an ideal venue for McIlroy to pick off major No. 2. Atlanta Athletic Club, at 7,467 yards, will appeal to a high-ball hitter who is long and straight off the tee. Someone like McIlroy. The greens are smooth but slippery, which will appeal to a player with great touch around the putting surfaces. Someone like McIlroy.

There is talk this week about the Chubby Slam - a nod to McIlroy’s gregarious manager, Andrew “Chubby” Chandler, whose agency represents all three of this year’s major winners, Charl Schwartzel (Masters), McIlroy (U.S. Open) and Darren Clarke (British). A win here by an ISM client would make four in the calendar year. “It would be great,” McIlroy said, “if ISM could take over Bermuda in October (for the PGA Grand Slam of Golf).”

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Last week, at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, McIlroy said he and caddie J.P. Fitzgerald felt as if they were “back to work, back to doing what we’re supposed to do.” It took a while, not surprisingly, to settle in after the U.S. Open. There were more people to visit, there were more demands on his time. So he didn’t factor at the Open Championship. He was 34th at the Irish Open. And last week, when he finally felt like he was getting back to work, he quietly tied for sixth.

“I’m playing very well,” he conceded.

This is a most peculiar time in golf, isn’t it? The top two players in the Official World Golf Ranking - Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, respectively - have yet to win a major, though that could change this week. The past six major champions have been first-time winners, all of whom are international players. That’s OK for the short term; parity helps uncover new talents. But in the long term, the sport needs star power, a dominant player to drive the narrative. McIlroy never will intimidate like Tiger - “It’s not as if I’m 6-foot-4 and 15 stone (210 pounds); I’m not the most imposing figure in the game,” he said - but that doesn’t mean he can’t make the leap from star to superstar like Tiger.

“When you dream of winning big tournaments as a kid and you dream of becoming a great golfer, all you think about is the golf, and you think about how great it is to hopefully be one of the best players in the world,” McIlroy said. “You never really think of the other side of it, the attention, the spotlight. That’s something I’m getting used to.”

And then he smiled and said: “It’s a nice position to be in. I’m not complaining.”

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