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Rory McIlroy enjoying the PGA Tour

Rory McIlroy is going through his schedule, sounding remarkably unimpressed.

Honda Classic this week. Doral next week. A quick trip home. Back to the United States for a round at Augusta National, maybe even a practice round with Tiger Woods in there somewhere.

It’s a glitzy itinerary for just about any pro golfer. For the 19-year-old from Northern Ireland, it’s somehow no big deal.

“I just go out and play golf, talk about what I’ve been doing, and everything else takes care of itself,” McIlroy said.

He makes it all sound simple.

Golf’s latest Next Big Thing is at PGA National this week, where Sergio Garcia, Camilo Villegas and defending champion Ernie Els headline the field at the Honda. But there’s going to be plenty of eyes on the teen, who’s already No. 16 in the world rankings and gave eventual champion Geoff Ogilvy all he wanted last week at Match Play before losing 2 and 1 in the quarterfinals.

McIlroy has already won at Dubai, and with a victory this week or at Doral, could become the PGA Tour’s youngest winner.

“He’s what I was 10 years ago,” Garcia said.

As almost always, the South Florida wind is blowing. The greens are even a touch quicker than last year and many are convinced that if anyone matches Els’ 6-under 274 from a year ago, he will be the guy walking away with $1,008,000 on Sunday.

McIlroy says he’s looking forward to the daunting challenge of the Jack Nicklaus design.

“I think especially with the breeze and the last few holes, it’s going to make for a pretty interesting finish as it always does,” McIlroy said. “It will be a good week, and one I’m looking forward to.”

There usually seems to be some young player on tour facing lofty expectations, and not everyone, of course, lives up to the billing.

But McIlroy is already commanding respect.

“Definitely one of the superstars of the future,” said Robert Allenby, who lives just down the road from PGA National. “He’s got a great talent. … I think he’s going to be fantastic for the tournament this week. He’ll be definitely one of the favorites to win for sure, with the way he’s been playing.”

That may be true, although it’s hard to handicap any tournament that doesn’t include Tiger Woods. And at PGA National, a few bad swings can send anyone freefalling down the leaderboard.

Slow and steady is the preferred method to win at the Honda, something Els managed last year and Mark Wilson—who’s coming off a win in Mexico last week— did the year before that.

“The one-shot-at-a-time motto is something my mom gave me when I was in junior golf and that’s what I try to do every week,” Wilson said. “And on a course like this where par is good, you’ve just got to hang in there.”

PGA National is a long par-70, with it’s lure being the “Bear’s Trap,” a stretch of holes 15, 16 and 17 that’s a nod to Nicklaus and has par-3’s at its beginning and end. There’s some tricky short holes, some par-4’s that are reachable only with long irons if the wind’s blowing strongly, and missing on the wrong side of many greens will just take par out of play.

Sounds brutal, but players love the test.

“The course looks in great shape and looking forward to playing it,” said Garcia, who’s up to No. 2 in the world and could further close the gap on Woods for the top spot this week. “Obviously, it’s a tough course. We know that. And you have to be very patient throughout the week.”

Not every 19-year-old could have that patience.

By now, though, dealing with situations like this is old hat for McIlroy. He started really turning heads with a sensational opening round at Carnoustie two years ago, and simply doesn’t seemed fazed by all the attention on him these days, either.

Woods chased Nicklaus as a kid, now-famously taping a list of Nicklaus’ accomplishments on his bedroom wall growing up. On McIlroy’s wall, there was a copy of Woods’ scorecard from the 1997 Masters.

“Any new kid that comes out is going to be compared to Tiger because he has been the best of the last 10 or 15 years, and he might be the greatest golfer of all time by the time he finishes,” McIlroy said. “So it doesn’t bother me. You have to have someone to compare yourself against. … And if I can get anywhere close to him, I’ll be very happy.”


March 5, 2009

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