CHARLOTTE, North Carolina: Rory McIlroy went home to Northern Ireland after the Masters and left his clubs behind in Florida.
He didn’t touch them again until he returned last week to start gearing up for a big summer that includes his title defense at the U.S. Open. The Wells Fargo Championship will be only his second tournament in the last two months.
It’s an example of how McIlroy, who turns 23 Friday, already is learning to find balance in a life that is more public than ever and getting increasingly busy. He was in Germany to watch his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, and he brought her home to Hollywood in County Down on a whim. He even had occasion to chat with the Queen of England during a horse race at Newbury.
“For me, there’s more to life than just golf,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “I don’t know if people are surprised to hear that, but I have a lot going on in my life than just golf.”
McIlroy is growing into his role as the biggest of the game’s rising stars – on and off the golf course.
When he arrived at Quail Hollow, he made time Tuesday to film a commercial for the PGA Tour and its support of the St. Jude’s Children Hospital. McIlroy appears in the commercial with Shaun White, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in snowboarding, and a 7-year-old boy named Dawson who is undergoing chemotherapy.
McIlroy is not even playing the St. Jude Classic next month, which benefits the hospital. No matter. Boy Wonder is touched by children, as he showed last year during a UNICEF trip to Haiti. And he was especially moved by Dawson.
“If I’m going to do anything like that, I want it to be with kids, because I feel like I can relate to them a little bit better than anything else,” McIlroy said. “To see someone go through what he’s going through, and to have all this positivity coming out of him, it just makes you realize how lucky and how fortunate we are. I know if I was going through an illness like what Dawson has, I don’t know if I would be as bright as and as happy and as cheery as he is. It’s definitely inspiring to see.”
McIlroy said there was one moment during the video shoot when the director told the boy that he could use a TelePrompTer if he forgot his lines.
“And he goes, ‘I don’t know how to read,’” McIlroy said. “So he memorized his lines, and he was brilliant. He was more of a pro than I was. It was cool to see.”
Conor Ridge, his agent at Horizon Sports Management, said White asked for McIlroy to be part of the commercial. “Watching him react with Dawson was unreal,” Ridge said. “You forget how young Rory is.”
It’s easier to forget considering what he already has achieved.
McIlroy twice has reached No. 1 in the world this spring, only for Luke Donald to wrest it away from him last week in New Orleans. It’s a battle that could go on during the summer, with perhaps Lee Westwood rejoining the fray. McIlroy or Westwood could go to No. 1 with a win this week. Donald is not playing.
“It would be nice to assert my authority in that No. 1 position and keep it for a while,” McIlroy said.
Quail Hollow again has attracted a strong field on one of the top golf courses on the PGA Tour, so good that it already has landed the PGA Championship for 2017.
Tiger Woods, who won here in 2007, makes his first start since his worst Masters – a tie for 40th, and heavy criticism for kicking his 9-iron after a poor tee shot on the 16th hole in the second round.
Woods did not make himself available for interviews. Instead, he answered 19 questions that fans submitted on Facebook and Twitter and posted the video on his website Monday. His spokesman said he would not be taking questions after his pro-am Wednesday, and several cameras followed him as he left the 18th green and signed autographs.
That didn’t stop a few players from having fun with his decision.
“You guys didn’t see my video, huh?” Phil Mickelson playfully asked when he sat down for his interview.
Hunter Mahan, who shares the same swing coach as Woods, said with a smile at the end of his news conference, “I was going to announce that I’m only doing webcasts from now on.”
Woods won by five shots at Bay Hill in his last start before the Masters, so his performance at Augusta National was a surprise. He said on his video that his posture was slightly off, and that it has been fixed since returning to practice.
McIlroy won his first PGA Tour event at Quail Hollow in 2010 when he closed with a 62, the sign of big things to come. He shot 63 at St. Andrews that summer to tie the major championship record, then shattered the U.S. Open scoring record at Congressional last year to finish at 16-under 268.
If nothing else, he should be fresh for this week.
McIlroy finished third at Doral, and then took three weeks off before he tied for 40th at the Masters. He went to Europe for two weeks, and then last week worked hard in the gym and on the practice range to get ready for this big stretch. He has Quail Hollow and The Players Championship, over to England for Europe’s flagship event at Wentworth, back to America for the Memorial and then the U.S. Open.
He hopes to play no more than about 24 events on both tours this year. The last few months have been important for him to do very little on the course.
“Basically, the most important time for me in the golf season is from the start of April until the end of August. That’s when all the big tournaments are and that’s when you want to play your best golf,” McIlroy said. “All the stuff either side of that is more preparation work and making sure that your game is getting ready and your body is physically ready for that time of the year.
“I’ve got a busy stretch coming up now,” he said. “I know I’ve been criticized a little bit for not playing as much as some other guys leading into these few weeks, but I know I’ve got a big stretch coming up, and I want to be as fresh as possible for this.”