Rory McIlroy likes Adam Scott, one of the universally popular men of the professional golf tour, so the notion of a heavyweight championship for the Emirates Australian Open this week feels foreign to him.
"It’s hard to have a rivalry with someone like Scotty, he’s such a nice guy,” the Northern Irishman said today as he round out preparations for defending the title he won at Royal Sydney a year ago.
But whatever the world No. 1 and world No. 3 say this week, they will not be able to control their billing as a pair of golfing Ali and Fraziers; the fact they came down the 72nd hole together last year, with McIlroy triumphing, only adds to the feeling that this is a rematch.
McIlroy, who kickstarted his brilliant 2014 with his win last year, dismissed the folly of a two-horse race this week, but acknowledged that Scott’s ball-striking and overall excellence drew the best from him. "If you’re playing with Adam he does make you play your best golf. He’s such a great player. He rarely misses a shot. The only way you can live with that is by doing the same thing.”
At 25, McIlroy is dominating the game, having won two majors this year, and the attention could be suffocating. Except that he is so measured and grounded in the way that he handles the hype. The focus, he says, is something he had to grow accustomed to.
He manages it with structure, and by allowing his minders to handle what he cannot control.
"I have a schedule on my phone for every day whether I’m at a golf tournament or not,” he said. "I mean, I could tell you what I’m probably going to do in four months time, in March or whatever. That’s the way my life has gone. It’s very structured and very scheduled. I’ve just got to make sure that I put the adequate time into focus on my golf because ultimately that’s what’s got me into this position.”
McIlroy has had a generous taste of the trappings the game can bring, and he wants more. The change in his body shape — the product of three years of weight training after a doctor told him in 2010 that he was in danger of developing a back stress fracture — is but one example of the work he has done to improve.
He does not bother with false modesty, which is an attractive part of the way he carries himself. "I’m 25 now. I’ve probably got a 10 or 15-year window of trying to play great golf and winning big tournaments and I’m going to do everything I can to be as successful as I can.”
He has four majors already, with only the Masters green jacket as the missing piece. He sounds like a young man with powerful ambition, and the game to match it.
"I know that if I play the golf I’m capable of, I’ve got a chance to do something pretty special in this game. It’s a matter of putting the time in to make sure I don’t just stay where I’m at. I’m trying to get better and better because I know all the guys who I’m competing against are trying to do the same thing.”
McIlroy had his second look at The Australian today, pronouncing it "tricky around the greens”. He practised on Monday with Ryan Ruffels, the 16-year-old Australian junior champion with whom he has a friendship, and with Todd Sinnott, the rocket-launching Australian amateur who actually hit it past him a couple of times. He liked Adam Scott’s description of Ruffels as "a mini touring pro already”, and predicts big things for him.
Most of all he’s happy to back in Sydney, scene of a win that turned his career back upward. "I just had a great week, I really did. Sydney’s one of my favourite cities in the world and we had a great time, and obviously I played really well and was able to get the win, my only win of last year and a very important one, especially the way I was able to do it. I think I annoyed quite a few Australians preventing Adam from getting the triple.”
The truth be known, Australians love great golfers, whichever the nationality. McIlroy is a champion and a gentleman, a player who is loved in the same way that Roger Federer is in tennis. He will have huge support this week, and the Open cannot come quickly enough.
By: Martin Blake (Golf Australia)