Rory McIlroy, who if he believed the hype would only need to turn up here this week to win the US PGA Championship, revealed last night that in the past eight weeks alone he has packed on three kilos of muscle that has helped make him the talk of the golfing world.
“I’m definitely hitting it longer over the past couple of years,” he said yesterday. “I’ve started to work harder in the gym and got stronger in certain areas of my body, which I needed to. I’ve always had the speed and the power but not the strength or stability to hold on to it my whole way through the swing.
“I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been. But does that mean I want to get heavier and try to put on more distance? I don’t feel like I need to.
“I don’t feel I need to put on any more distance. I can hit it over 300 yards. That gives me plenty of opportunities to hit it close to the flags and try to make birdies. It’s the best I’ve ever driven the ball.”
The stats support his testimony. McIlroy led the driving statistics in Akron last week where he won the Bridgestone Invitational with an average wallop of 334.1 yards. Any more than that and you start to run out of fairway.
While the technical side of his game is impressive it is the management of the attendant hoopla that’s making the difference.
Evidence of McIlroy’s growing status as the game’s poster boy could be seen yesterday when his media conference was hijacked by the PGA to announce an extended sponsorship deal with a Swiss watch maker and adopted a James Bond pose in a picture shoot.
McIlroy, positioned betwixt the head of PGA and the chief executive of Omega, looked more than comfortable in the seat once occupied by golf’s outgoing USP Tiger Woods. Well, McIlroy is shooting for his fourth major at the age of 25, and his third victory on the spin after adding Bridgestone last Sunday to the Open crown claimed last month.
Golf’s powerbrokers cannot get enough of the next big thing, which notionally at least, ups the ante ahead of the final major of the season. Not that you would know it judging by McIlroy’s sanguine demeanour.
Locked into this virtuous cycle of near perfect golf, where every ball he hits does as he bids, and flies a long way with it, McIlroy simply sits back and lets the tributes wash over him. He lets others do the talking while he concentrates on nothing more than the next shot, and how that formula is working.
McIlroy has always had plenty of game. Now he has the mind to manage the expectation, leading some to suggest we are entering the ‘Rory era’. His return to the top of the world rankings this week supports the claims but wisely he stands back from that, or rather, resists the temptation to fan that flame.
“I don’t really know how to answer that,” McIlroy said. “Of course I’ve heard it and I’ve read it.
“Sometimes I feel that people are too quick to jump to conclusions and jump on the bandwagon and jump on certain things.
“I’ve had a great run of golf and played well over the past few months. I said at the start of the year that golf was looking for someone to put their hand up and sort of become one of the dominant players in the game. I felt like I had the ability to do that.
“It’s just nice to be able to win a few tournaments and get back to where I feel like I should be, which is near the top of the world rankings, competing in majors and winning golf tournaments.
“I’m not necessarily sure you can call that an era or the start of an era, but I’m just really happy with where my golf game is at the minute and I just want to try and continue that for as long as possible.
“People can say what they want to say, that’s fine. But I can’t read too much into it.
"I just need to continue to practise hard and play well and try not to read too much of the stuff that’s being written, because if you read everything, I’d turn up at the first tee on Thursday thinking I’d already won the tournament.”
The whispers around Valhalla say he’s a shoo-in, which is reflected by the fact that he is the overwhelming favourite in a 156-horse race.
McIlroy is so confident he took the day off Monday rather than familiarise himself with a course he has never played. It’s long, green and in US. That’s all he needs to know.
“I don’t know much about the course but from the people that have spoken to me and guys in the locker room it will suit my game pretty well,” McIlroy said.
“I know it’s going to be a long drive course. I feel like I’ve driven the ball very well the last few weeks. If I do that, hopefully I’ll have a good chance.”
10 out of 10 for understatement, Rory.
Top-ranked Rory McIlroy took his first look at the Valhalla layout on Monday ahead of the 96th PGA Championship while Tiger Woods was in Florida having treatment on his aching back.
Golf's current and former superstars were on vastly different trajectories for the year's final major tournament with McIlroy going for a hat trick of triumphs and Woods' status in doubt a day after a painful exit at the World Golf Championships event in Akron, Ohio.
McIlroy won his third major title last month at the British Open and took his first WGC crown Sunday at Akron, arriving at Valhalla as a clear favorite and the first player since Woods in 2009 to enter a major after back-to-back wins.
"It's great to have a chance to try to go there to try to win three in a row," McIlroy said. "(It's) one I desperately want to win."
McIlroy overtook Australian Adam Scott for the world number one ranking after winning Sunday.
"My goal now until the end of the year is just to try to win as many golf tournaments as I can. It's not to try to finish number one," McIlroy said. "I feel like with the way I'm playing there's a few left in me this year."
Woods was supposed to be practicing Monday at Valhalla, where he won the 2000 PGA title, but instead was in Florida having his back examined while the course was examined by caddie Joe LaCava, who had to help Woods put on his shoes in the parking lot after he withdrew from the final round in Akron with back spasms.
Woods also cancelled a planned media availability on Tuesday. Mark Steinberg, Woods' agent, told ESPN Monday that the star's ability to play might not be decided until the eve of the tournament.
"Way too early," Steinberg said in a text message. "He has to rest and get treatment and then assess later… Nothing further today, maybe (not) even tomorrow."
Woods, a 14-time major champion chasing the record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus, underwent back surgery March 31 to ease a pinched nerve and returned in Washington in late June, missing the cut at the US PGA event his foundation owns.
After posting his worst 72-hole result in a major by sharing 69th at the British Open, Woods "jarred" his back by hopping into a bunker after hitting his second shot Sunday at the second hole at Firestone.
Playing through pain, Woods lasted until hitting his tee shot at the ninth and then walked off.
"It's just the whole lower back," Woods said.
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That left Phil Mickelson, who fired his low round of the year Sunday with a 62, not knowing whether he will be playing alongside Woods or not in the first two rounds.
"It didn't look good. It looked like he was really in pain," Mickelson said. "I hope he's OK. I hope he's able to play. I hope it's a muscle and nothing serious because I'm really looking forward to playing with him.
"We all want him in the field. We all want him back. I just hope he's OK."
Steve Stricker expressed the worry of many, saying Woods might have tried to come back from surgery too fast.
"He came back to me a little early after back surgery," Stricker said. "Hopefully he didn't come back too soon. Hopefully this is a little blip and he will come out here and be able to play."
Rickie Fowler, who shared second at the US and British Opens and fifth at this years Masters, wants to see US countryman Woods at his best.
"It has been tough to see him struggling," Fowler said. "I want to see him healthy and playing well."
Reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson went back to Woods' most recent major victory, on a broken leg at the 2008 US Open, to cite his ability to cope with pain and pressure and still win.
"This man won a tournament with a hurt leg, so he's going to try to be a champion, try to tough it out," Watson said. "Obviously, it got too tough for him."
That leaves the stage to McIlroy, who won his first major at the 2011 US Open and added the PGA Championship in 2012. McIlroy averaged a PGA season-best 334 yards off the tee last week and ranked 12th in driving accuracy while leading in greens reached in regulation as well.
"Obviously, Rory's in incredible form at the moment," Scott said. "He'll be the man to beat by the looks of things, and I'll be gunning for him for sure."
Even if Tiger Woods has his own miracle healer hidden somewhere in Florida, it would be prudent for him to put his clubs away and take the rest of the season off.
What happened to Woods on Sunday on the second hole in Akron, which subsequently led to his withdrawal from the World Golf Championship-Bridgestone Invitational, looked extremely bad on television.
Hopefully, the MRI scan will provide a much better and optimistic picture for the former world No1.
He was visibly struggling and wincing, and when he did walk away from the golf course, he was finding it difficult to even change his shoes.
Let’s face it, Woods has nothing left to prove.
With 14 major titles under his belt, he really has achieved everything which would classify him as one of the greatest exponent of the game.
If he misses this week’s PGA Championship, the FedEx Cup Playoffs after that, or even as part of USA’s Ryder Cup team at Gleneagles in the last week of September, it will not take away anything from what he means to golf.
Woods came back from his microdiscetomy surgery to relieve the pinched nerve in his back in just three months, which, most experts believe, was too short a time to recuperate.
More importantly, it did not give him enough time to strengthen the back muscles properly.
Woods has strongly defended his comeback at the Congressional in Quicken Loans National, a tournament that benefits his charity, but the general view was that he should have waited a little longer.
Either the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, or last week’s Bridgestone Invitational would have been much better options.
In fact, even Woods alluded to that fact in his pre-tournament press conference at Akron on Wednesday, when he said: “Most of the people I talked to who have had the procedure, have no idea how I’m even back here playing. They just can’t understand that.”
Alas, he spoke too soon.
There are two issues with Woods: his own expectations, and the fact that there is so much commercial pressure on him to play.
One thing Woods – who turns 39 in December – has started to accept, albeit very slowly, is age is catching up with him.
Even though there are several examples of players who have won majors and other tournaments in their 40s, he will have to understand that the only way he can go past Sam Snead’s record of 82 wins on the PGA Tour and Jack Nicklaus’ tally of 18 majors, is by staying healthy.
Even though there have been so many different major champions since Woods won the 2008 US Open, it cannot be denied that he still remains the biggest draw in the game.
And by winning five tournaments last year on the PGA Tour, he has shown that he can still be a major force.
We may never again see the dominant Tiger we saw in 2000 or the mid-part of the decade, but even if he returns at 80 per cent of his ability, I have no doubt he will obliterate Snead’s record, if not Nicklaus’.