Commentary: Golf has found its new star

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland poses with the trophy for photographers after his eight-stroke victory on the 18th green during the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club on June 19, 2011 in Bethesda, Maryland.

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BETHESDA, Md. – At the beginning of U.S. Open week, Rory McIlroy was taking medicine to protect against malaria after last week’s charity trip to Haiti. The precautionary pills had little side effect, except for leaving the youngster feeling a little dizzy.

By the end of the week, everyone else’s heads were spinning at Congressional Country Club. McIlroy turned in one of the most impressive performances in major-championship history, not only collecting his first Grand Slam trophy but making his Masters collapse nothing more than a prelude to glory.

McIlroy shot 16-under 268 at Congressional to beat Jason Day by eight shots and give carpal tunnel to the authors of the U.S. Open record books. A sampling of his accomplishments: He broke the tournament’s 36-, 54- and 72-hole scoring records. His 268 was four strokes better than the previous mark. He’s the sixth player to go wire-to-wire in a U.S. Open, and the third to shoot four regulation rounds in the 60s.

He’s the youngest U.S. Open champion since Bobby Jones, and youngest major winner since Tiger Woods.

“There’s a lot of joy, and especially with this victory, there’s quite a bit of relief, as well,” McIlroy said. “Obviously just very happy to win the U.S. Open and to win it in a bit of style, as well.”

McIlroy’s performance was the confluence of many forces. His free-flowing, balanced golf swing, developed with focus on little more than the fundamentals, was at its best on a golf course softened by both necessity and Mother Nature. He was able to thrive as the tournament leader, a position he was in since Thursday, because of lessons from previous failings.

All of this combined to make McIlroy the man of the week at Congressional. His impressive victory was even more special, more significant, because of one of the players not in the field.

The conventional argument used to be that Woods’ absence cheapened major victories. It made McIlroy’s so much more significant.

Woods’ personal and professional lives – and, therefore, the sport he once dominated – have more questions than answers. This week seemed to answer one query: Who is golf’s next star?

No one since Woods has displayed so much talent at such a young age. McIlroy doesn't have to win majors at a Woodsian rate to become golf’s leading man for years to come, though. The 22-year-old’s Q rating is inflated by more than W’s.

"He's very, very level-headed," Day said. "If we wanted an ambassador for golf for the next generation, he'd be one of the guys."

McIlroy visited Haiti the week before the championship, an almost unthinkable gesture. His wavy locks cover a good head on those 22-year-old shoulders. He’s popular with his fellow players and media. He had to convince himself to be MORE cocky on the course, theorizing that his final-round 80 at the Masters was the result of being too tentative.

Oh, and his game is more fun to watch than a carful of clowns.

Sure, McIlroy’s scoring records were helped by a Congressional layout softened first for fear of killing the club’s young greens, then by rain. But the conditions were the same for all 156 competitors here, and none could come close to matching McIlroy.

He had a three-shot lead after the first round, shooting his lowest round on the hardest day. His 65 was more than nine strokes below the field average.

His lead was six after two rounds, eight entering Sunday. He hit 62 of 72 greens, five more than anyone else in the field and the most since the USGA started tracking the stat. He had just three bogeys and a double bogey for the four rounds.

McIlroy’s swing begins with an almost imperceptible raising of his hands and hunching of his shoulders. The slight straightening of his left leg is the final move before the club begins its metronomic motion back and through the ball. It’s a combination of good genetics and good form.

McIlroy has worked with the same instructor, Michael Bannon, for more than 15 years. They started with the fundamentals, and have made minimal tweaks since then.

“I've basically had the same swing since I was 16 years old,” McIlroy said.

The club travels on a singular plane, without hitch or twitch around his 5-foot-9, 161-pound frame. His swing is impressive to both the trained and untrained eye.

David Leadbetter said McIlroy has the tempo of Fred Couples, but with better positioning. Sean Foley called McIlroy a modern-day Sam Snead for his tempo and flexibility. Foley also compared the new Open champion to talents like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, athletes born with attributes that allow them to do things that others can’t.

“It’s a really gifted golf swing,” said Foley, who teaches Woods. “I hear guys saying this is the swing you want to copy. You can’t, because you have to be able to have the mobility and rotary speed in order to do it.

“It’s a combination of flexibility, balance, power and speed, and it’s very elegant.”

Even Jack Nicklaus joined in the praise, saying in an interview on the NBC broadcast, “His rhythm is so beautiful, his tempo, it just stays the same all the time.”

McIlroy doesn’t need to repeat this week to become a star, though. Doing it once was good enough.

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