McIlroy completes world travels at PGA Grand Slam

Rory McIlroy during the PGA Grand Slam of Golf pro-am.

Rory McIlroy during the PGA Grand Slam of Golf pro-am.

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SOUTHAMPTON, Bermuda – Blame it on jet lag. Or else Rory McIlroy may have hit it closer than 2 1/2 feet at the downhill and picturesque 13th hole at Port Royal Golf Course.

In fact, the shot was so good – heck it was so utterly brilliant – that none of the other four players in the pro-am group had to tee it up or putt it out.

“I’ll just finish it off,” McIlroy laughed as he drained his second straight birdie in what could only be called the definitive casual round of golf. As U.S. Open champion, McIlroy is being joined at Port Royal by the three other major winners in 2011 – Charl Schwartzel, Darren Clarke, and Keegan Bradley – for the 29th PGA Grand Slam of Golf. To warm up for Tuesday’s opening round, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland took part in Monday’s pro-am.

When he polished off his one-man show at the 13th, McIlroy was given a round of applause. “Welcome to the team,” an amateur partner said, but he may as well have said, “Welcome to Bermuda.” After all, McIlroy had set foot on the island only hours earlier, having made a massive trip to get here.

“Have you woken up yet?” McIlroy was asked at the 13th tee by Ian Baker-Finch. McIlroy smiled and said, “Actually, I feel OK.”

Just 25 hours earlier, McIlroy had been approximately 10,000 miles away, in Macau. His journey to Bermuda required a helicopter ride from Macau to a ferry port in Hong Kong, a limousine ride to the airport, a flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, then another from L.A. to Bermuda with a stop to re-fuel.

“But it wasn’t that bad. I feel fine,” McIlroy said, and as he stopped and signed hats, programs, T-shirts and even a Northern Ireland football flag, it was easy to see why the kid is blessed to have such a magical presence. Certainly, flying private as he had done makes for an easier ordeal, but still, traveling roughly 10,000 miles is a chore. When you factor in what McIlroy had done in the days leading up to Macau, he surely represented the most intriguing arrival story of the four competitors.

No one else, after all, had played 18 holes over seven days at eight golf courses in China. You read correctly – it took seven days to complete one round of golf, with McIlroy joined by Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Liang Wen-Chong in what was billed as the China Golf Challenge.

Shake your head and snicker, if you like, but McIlroy raved about the experience. “Unbelievable. To get a chance to do something and go places where you may never have the chance . . . it was the chance of a lifetime,” McIlroy said.

His agent, Andrew “Chubby” Chandler, even went so far as to say, “I’d say it was almost the best week I’ve ever had in my life.”

On a monstrous roll as an agent (all you need to know is that he is in Bermuda because three of the major winners – Schwartzel, McIlroy and Clarke - are his clients), the gregarious Chandler possesses a keen sense of where the sport is headed and how to be imaginative to benefit his players financially. Even he concedes this China Golf Challenge blew him away.

It was proposed to him more than a year ago by Raymond Roessel, a hugely successful businessman throughout Asia. The idea was simple: Golf is erupting in popularity in China and to help celebrate a string of course openings, so why not get four world-class players to play a few holes at each venue? At first, an 11-day sojourn was pitched, but Chandler said that would have been a bit too much. Ernie Els was in the original lineup, but when he pulled out more than a month ago, Westwood was added. A player from China was always going to be in the mix, and it made sense that it was Wen-Chong, given that at No. 235 he’s China’s top-ranked player.

OK, it was different. And perhaps it wasn’t an easy sell from the get-go, but eventually everyone warmed up to it, no matter that it was going to require so much travel. Mind you, this was China, not Northern Ireland, where “you can go from the very top to the very bottom (by car) in 5 1/2 hours,” Gerry McIlroy, Rory’s father, said, and each day the golfers and a handful of dignitaries boarded two private jets and were airborne to the next destination.

“It was so interesting, so unique,” Chandler said. “We saw an area in Shanghai that had just been redeveloped. It’s the most vibrant place I’ve ever seen.”

The itinerary started Oct. 10 and can only be called remarkable, one that might even make Gary Player blush:

Monday – Tomson Golf Club in Shanghai

Tuesday – Jinsha Lake International GC in Zhengzhou

Wednesday – Topwin Golf & Country Club in Beijing

Wednesday – Jade Island International GC in Beijing

Thursday – Red Flag Valley Club in Dalian

Friday – Sun Kingdom GC in Chongqing

Saturday – Long Island Golf & Country Club in Dongguan

Sunday – Caesars Golf in Macau

For the record, at the end of 18 holes, Westwood and Wen-Chong were tied at 2 under, necessitating a playoff that the Englishman won. Poulter finished next at 1 under, while McIlroy, at 6 over, was fourth. Not great, but hey, it was another top 10, eh?

Actually, the scores had very little to do with the experience. Chandler said there were three reasons his players – McIlroy and Westwood – agreed to go.

“No. 1, the fee was very good, obviously,” he said. “No. 2, it was a chance for them to further their brands in China. But No. 3, it was an unbelievable chance to see parts of the world where we might never go again. This was one big adventure.”

Chandler and McIlroy talked of a trek into the northeast part of China that took them close to the Russian border and how it “looked like Scotland,” the agent said. Transported through the air aboard Challenger 850 and Challenger 605 private jets and on the ground by Rolls-Royces and Hummers, the players were greeted at each golf course by thousands of spectators, the majority of them young.

So impressive was the week that Chandler said he’s more convinced than ever as to where the game is headed. “When they really start playing, it’s a no-brainer. They’ll be the best,” Chandler said of the Chinese.

But for now, that label can be worn by those who win the game’s biggest championships, all of whom are gathered on a piece of real estate in the Atlantic that needn’t take a back seat to anywhere in the world. Truly, Bermuda is a special place, and though it’s nearly 10,000 miles from where he was Sunday night, McIlroy is thrilled to be here.

Tired, but thrilled, and clearly as skilled as ever.

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