Rory McIlroy showed up late on Sunday night in Rochester, NY for the PGA Championship Media Day at Oak Hill Country Club. He was fresh off the Memorial Tournament where he had another lackluster performance finishing over par for the tournament after barely making another cut. It’s been a disappointing year for the 24-year old from Northern Ireland. But, never the less he showed up for his duties on Monday which included a round with the President of the PGA of America.
Oak Hill CC is one of the most storied golf venues in the U.S. It has hosted ten major events since 1949 including the Ryder Cup, PGA Championships, U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur Championship. Its past champions include the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Cary Midlecoff, Curtis Strange and former Indiana Hoosier, Shaun Micheel.
Craig Harmon, bother of renowned teacher Butch, and 41-year head golf professional at Oak Hill joined McIlroy, Rob Correa from CBS and me in the 18-hole round. I had played with Rory at the PGA Grand Slam of Golf a few years ago. In March, I had the privilege of presenting him with the 2012 PGA of America Player of the Year and the Vardon Trophy. So, he and I were not strangers and that made the round more relaxing for me.
Harmon was instrumental in giving McIlroy an insider’s view on Oak Hill. The course was long and the rough was brutal. The greens were fast, but not yet at major championship speeds. McIlroy fired an easy 67 leaving several shots on the putting green. His round was highlighted by back to back 2’s on the 14th and 15th holes. He knocked his second shot in the jar on the par four 14th and followed that with a birdie on the tough par three 15th.
Rory was impressive in his ball striking. He only missed a couple of fairways and afterwards at the press conference, he spoke confidently about his game.
“Last year at this time when I wasn’t playing well, I wondered if I would ever win again,” recalled McIlroy. “This year is different. I am playing much better and feel like I am ready to put the pieces together. I just feel like I am going to start playing well really soon and winning will come.”
Gerry McIlroy accompanied his son to Oak Hill. The elder Irishman is a solid player in his own right. He is a common man, a former owner of a bar in Hollywood, Ireland. But, Father McIlroy has an affinity for the United States.
“This is the best country in the world. Americans are nice people and always very helpful. Rosie (wife) and I love it over here. It truly is the land of opportunity,” said Gerry.
He and Rosie did a fantastic job raising their son. Rory is an example of everything that is good in a modern day sports star. He is humble, polite and has a shy way about him. When asked about a potential rivalry between Tiger Woods and him his response was to the point.
“What rivalry? He has won 76 Tour events and I have won six. Tiger has 14 majors and I have two. How can that be a rivalry?” asked McIlroy.
Woods will be entertaining McIlroy at The Medalist Club in Jupiter, FL on Saturday. Afterwards, the two will have dinner together.
“Where in the world can you guys eat in Palm Beach without being constantly interrupted?” asked Harmon when Rory told us about the day.
“His house. Tiger is bringing in a chef,” smiled McIlroy.
Throughout the day on Monday, McIlroy signed autographs and posed for numerous pictures with young kids who obviously admired the Irish star. On Monday night, he and his dad left for Merion in Philadelphia and two rounds in preparation for next week’s U.S. Open. He seems ready and more importantly so does his game.
I reflected back to March when McIlroy was asked who his most favorite golfing partner had ever been. He said that it was former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani. As a young boy, the memories of 9/11 were still etched in McIlroy’s mind.
“To play with Rudy Giuliani, who was a hero during 9/11 was incredible,” said McIlroy.
On Wednesday, I had that same privilege. I joined the former NYC mayor at Liberty National, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Giuliani is a member there and the landscape is incredible. From nearly every point on the golf course you can see the Statue of Liberty and the new Freedom Tower, which replaces the World Trade Center.
Giuliani started playing golf in 1998. He is now 68 years old. The face of 9/11 has a law firm, as well as consulting and security businesses. He strives to play at least two rounds of golf a week. Not long, but mostly straight- Giuliani also has a good short game.
“I love to play. It’s truly the sport of a lifetime,” said Giuliani. “I played baseball and other sports when I was younger, but I wish I had played golf sooner.”
After our round at Liberty National we sat around and listened to him tell stories. Lots of those were about George Steinbrenner and the Yankees. He is an avid baseball fan and the Yanks are his first love. I ask him where he was on 9/11.
“I was at the Peninsula Hotel on 55th Street and 5th Avenue. I was told a twin engine plane had hit the North Tower. Then when the South Tower was hit, we knew it was something bad,” recalled Giuliani. “I drove down there and set up about two blocks from the World Trade Center. When the North Tower went down I was trapped for about 30 minutes and reports were out that I had died.”
He said it took about a week for any normalcy to return to his life. It was that long before he ate a meal that required utensils.