HUMBLE, Texas – When the scrutiny becomes suffocating, it’s a good time for Rory McIlroy to get as far away as he can.
So he went to a practice range on a public course.
Imagine the surprise of the paying customer at Miami Municipal Golf Course a few weeks ago who looked over to his left and saw McIlroy, still at No. 1 in the world and a two-time major champion, plop down a carry bag with a Manchester United logo.
“Why was that such a big deal?” McIlroy asked with a mixture of amazement and bemusement.
This was Wednesday at the Houston Open, where morning frost caused a 2-hour delay in the pro-am. Instead of retreating to the clubhouse dining room at Redstone Golf Club to order from the omelet station, McIlroy found a spare booth in the caddie trailer, where the fare ranged from scrambled eggs to peanut butter on toast.
Just one of the lads.
He made the cut on the number last week – his first against a full field this year – and was making a run up the leaderboard in the third round when he three-putted for bogey from 5 feet on the par-5 13th hole. McIlroy dropped two more shots and returned toward the bottom of the pack.
After lunch, it was back to work. He set up shop in front of a grandstand, where 30 people took a seat to watch. Tom Gillis, a runner-up to McIlroy a year ago at the Honda Classic, came over and gave Boy Wonder a playful push.
McIlroy was hitting driver toward the end, picking out a barren tree on the horizon as a target for his draw. He was getting dialed in when caddie J.P. Fitzgerald said, “End it with a good one.” The shape looked to be perfect, and the caddie said, “Beautiful.”
“One more,” McIlroy said with a smile, and then he hit that one even better.
He walked over to the railing where a dozen kids had gathered, took out a pen and began signing memorabilia. One of them was a photo of McIlroy posing with the U.S. Open trophy, brown curls spilling out from under his cap.
“I can’t believe I looked like this,” he said. His hair is much shorter now. He’s more grown up. He turns 24 next month.
This is the state of McIlroy.
He tied for 45th in the Houston Open. While that would normally be considered a pedestrian week, he considers it progress. He signed up for the Texas Open this week, wanting more competition before going to the Masters. Perhaps more telling was how much happier he looked than in recent weeks.
“I learned from the last few weeks that I’ve got to keep my spirits up. There’s no point in getting down on yourself,” McIlroy said. “I felt like I was doing that a bit too much at the Match Play and Honda, and you saw what happened there.”