Game, set and match for Rory

RORY McIlroy’s next event in America is this week’s Western & Southern Open in Ohio. But before golf fans flock to the midwest to see the latest instalment of this developing epic, they should be told the Ulsterman will not be teeing it up. He will be there to see a tennis tournament. He will be there to see Caroline Wozniacki.

“I’m on my way to Cincinnati for a few days,” he told the knowing reporters. “I hear it’s nice this time of year.” Cue laughter, cue headlines. So the cameras will follow him and his fame will rise a few more notches. That’s the way it’s been this season, which in effect came to its conclusion yesterday.

It started in Georgia and ended in Georgia. When McIlroy tapped in here yesterday to bring down the curtain on one of golf’s more memorable major campaigns, the relief spanned over his face. “I’m glad to get it done,” he said, before reflecting on five months of major competition. “It has been a great major season for me. To get my first one at the US Open was great and I learned a lot at the Masters. That was a huge learning curve for me. Leading for 63 holes there and not being able to finish it off but then coming back the next time and winning.

“The last two majors of the year have been funny. I’ve had to deal with a bit more attention than I usually would get and I have learned a lot from that as well. So it has been a great learning year for me and there have been a lot of positives to take.”

It began with the Masters and the unforgettable scenes of the final-round 80, just as golf prepared to hail its new superstar. Two months later the hyperbole could be ressurected with his record-breaking eight-stroke victory in the US Open in Congressional.

In comparison, the Open was a bit of a breather, although in the midst of all the attention, all the grand pronouncements, premature announcements, not to mention an internet expose of a burgeoning relationship with tennis’s world No 1, Wozniacki, he did rather well to finish 25th. And then this, wrist-wrenching drama. A foolhardy shot off a tree root, a mad dash for a scan, heavy strapping and any amount of credit earned for battling through the pain. The tie for 66th does not begin to tell the story.

But then, it never will with McIlroy. If one thing has been confirmed in 2011 it is that Rory is the new Tiger. Perhaps not in how many tournaments he wins or how many tournaments he will go on to win. But certainly in the way in which the spotlight follows him and the intrigue in the tale does not disappoint.

Take yesterday’s opening. McIlroy arrived at the 475-yard par-four third, the hole where his seven iron went crunch in Thursday’s first round, and proceeded to run up a triple bogey seven. McIlroy eventually signed for an 11-over total, having compiled four birdies, five bogeys to go with that ugly treble in his 74. “I’ve played 70 holes of this major with an injury, so that’s frustrating” he said, before saying how he found the Athletic Club “a strange course for me off the tee”.

The reality was McIlroy was at the wrong end of the leaderboard. Indeed, only six of the players who survived the cut were below him (including Paul Casey, the Englishman whose torrid campaign continued with a 14-over finish). At the top, the leaders were preparing to tee off with huge question marks over their challenges. The pacesetters comprised two Americans - Brendan Steele and Keegan Bradley - playing their first major and another American - Jason Dufner - who has been on the PGA Tour for 12 years with no wins.

It was an almost surreal scenario, although there was some quality in behind. Scott Verplank is a redoubtable Ryder Cup partner, Steve Stricker is under-rated as the world No 5, Anders Hansen is a Dane who has two Wentworth PGAs to his name, Charl Schwartzel won the Masters in April and Robert Karlsson is a former Order of Merit champion. And then came Luke Donald and Lee Westwood.

It is hard to recall a player looking more fed up than Westwood when he trudged in with a 70 on Saturday to stand six behind Dufner and Steele. Tee to green, nobody has been his equal this week in Atlanta. On the green, nobody has been his equal either. Westwood’s confidence on the greens as he resumed his challenge for that major breakthrough yesterday was best expressed by this quote as he made his weary way to the locker room. “I’d like to think the putts are going to drop tomorrow,” he said. “But they haven’t dropped all year, so why should they change tomorrow?“

It was not what Bob Rotella would have wanted to hear. The celebrated mind guru, who Westwood has been working with for two weeks, demands a positive approach. And certainly one was needed here as the 93rd USPGA approached its climax.

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