Rory McIlroy – A decade ago this week – Vegemite, Greg Norman, Meat Pies and an Aussie Open

Bernie McGuire

Mitchell Tweedie, caddy JP Fitzgerald and manager Sean O’Flaherty celebrate Rory McIlroy’s 2013 Australian Open triumph (Photo – Anthony Powter)

Bernie McGuire

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It is 10-years this very week since Rory McIlroy remarkably kept alive a then five-year run of having won at least one tournament a year.

McIlroy did so in what was his penultimate event of 2013 and in his first year as a fully-fledged Nike golfer, claiming a one-shot victory over the overwhelming home favourite and reigning Masters champion Adam Scott in the Emirates Australian Open at the Royal Sydney club in Sydney.

Coming up the last Scott led by one from McIlroy only for there to be a two-shot swing in McIlroy’s winning favour after Scott bogeyed and McIlroy pulled off a stunning victory birdie.

However, before I begin mentioning McIlroy’s love of the humble Aussie meat pie, his then admiration for Greg Norman and his dislike for the ‘Heath food of a nation’ the marketing catchphrase for Vegemite, allow me go back to January that year and a press conference early on a Tuesday evening in Abu Dhabi.

It was an outdoor conference to formally herald McIlroy joining Tiger Woods as a full Nike player, in the week of his opening event of the 2013 DP World Tour season.

Around a month earlier, I had also made my way to Zhengzhou in China where McIlroy had defeated Woods in their ‘Duel at Lake Jinsha’, with McIlroy already using Nike clubs and, of course, both using Nike balls.  There had been sight each of the two days of spectators lined all the way down the practice range, leaving about a roadway width lane to hit practice shots before souveniring each and every golf ball hit by both players in warming-up before McIlroy and Woods headed to the practice putting green and the Chinese course proper.

McIlroy ended 2012 as No. 1 in the world, so you could imagine Nike’s anticipation in signing the then world’s best to join current the all-time longest World No. 1 in Woods.

However, the fanfare that January night in the UAE to rubber-stamp McIlroy’s reputed $25m, 10-year deal, then got off to a horror start for both McIlroy and the sports clothing and footwear giant as he hopelessly missed the Abu Dhabi cut with a pair of 75s.

And as the 2013 season unfolded there really was not much to sing about with McIlroy sharing eighth at the WGC Cadillac Championship and then second at the Valero Texas Open in the week prior to the Masters, but where an Augusta National third day 79 continued a no frills showing for McIlroy in five straight visits to ‘Golfing Cathedral Among the Pines”.

The same theme continued at the 2013 BMW PGA (missed cut), Memorial (T57th), US Open (T40th), Irish Open (missed cut), The Open (missed cut), WGC – Bridgestone Invitational (T27th) but then a T8th at 2013’s last major – the PGA Championship.

“It’s the Nike ball he’s using”, some would say.  “No, it’s those Nike clubs and that VRS Covert driver … they’re the problem”, said others.

Whatever, the results stayed the same with McIlroy making-up the numbers, including middle-of-the-field finishes in his last three events of his PGA Tour at the FedEx Cup Play-Offs.

Rory McIIroy, winner of the 2013 Australian Open at Royal Sydney (Photo: Anthony Powter)

Finally, in his last two events of the 2013 DP World Tour schedule he breathed life into thoughts of finally wriggling his way to a win in the then ‘Year of the Snake’, this after a T6th in Shanghai at the HSBC Champions and a T5th at the closing event in Dubai but alas, the ‘W’ eluded him.

There was much fanfare when McIlroy arrived at the host Royal Sydney Golf Club with photographs of this ‘new kid on the golfing block’ joining Scott and Jason Day in appearing on all Australian Open promotional material.  Young Aussie golf fans were no different to other young golfers the world over calling out ‘Rory, Rory, Rory’ everywhere he went that week while the older generation wondered if this curly-haired youngster, with the distinct Northern Ireland accent, could match what Scott had managed to achieve in April that year by ending a 77-year long winning wait for a still first Aussie-born winner of a famed green jacket.

McIlroy attended a jam-packed pre-tournament press conference where, among the questions asked, was the quintessential friendly interrogation asked of most overseas sports stars visiting ‘Down Under’ for a first time, such as what he likes, dislikes, has he eaten a Aussie meat pie, who’s his favourite Aussie movie star and also most admired Aussie golfer.

“I don’t mind the meat pies but just can’t get used to vegemite, so it’s definitely an Australian acquired taste,” McIlroy said smiling.

“Russell Crowe’s always been my favourite Australian actor and my favourite all-time Australian golfer is Greg Norman.  Being a multiple Major winner and a former World Number One, The Great White Shark will forever be remembered in the game.

“Aside from his great golfing achievements, Greg is a hugely successful businessman off the course. Not many golfers have successfully made that transition.

“I know Greg also has won the Australian Open many times and that is my goal this week”,

And there was the question of what it would mean to him to win the Australian Open?

“To win the Australian Open would be huge for me”, he said.  “It would stamp my place in the history books of the Australian Open alongside people like Greg, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and so many other great players.

“And following in their footsteps would never be a bad thing”.

The style displayed by McIlroy in winning close to the shoreline of Sydney Harbour was as important as the result itself. He had trailed Scott by four strokes heading into the final round and finished with  a 66 to win by a shot. By the eighth, McIlroy tied the lead having followed up an eagle with a birdie. As Scott stumbled to a bogey on the 72nd hole and a fourth-round 71, McIlroy birdied. Scott had missed the green, before overhitting a chip.

Doubly disappointing for Scott as he had failed in his quest to win a second Australian Open title and the triple crown of Australian golf – the Australian Masters, PGA and Open in the same season – achieved only once before, by Robert Allenby in 2005.

In winning the Australian Open, McIlroy became only the third European-born golfer to do so with Lee Westwood also dramatically breaking the hearts of  Australian sport followers in defeating Norman in a play-off for the 1997 tournament while fellow Englishman Michael Scott captured the first hosting of the title in 1904 and again won three years later.

Of course, Poland’s Adrian Meronk tees-up this week as defending champion.

Nike Golf bosses must surely have breathed a huge sigh of relief when McIlroy was handed the famed Stonehaven Trophy while McIlroy used his winner’s press conference to publically silence his knockers.

“There was a lot of criticism at the start of the year when I switched to Nike, so my message now to those people who still want to criticise me is that this win should silence any further criticism,” McIlroy said.

“To have taken down someone of Adam Scott’s calibre, who is the Masters champion and now one of the best players in the world, was a pretty nice feeling.

“I’ve said all along it’s about building back the confidence and I’ve been gradually achieving that”

McIlroy’s win in the Australian Open may not rank among the most high-profile in his career but it is unquestionably one of the more significant.

“I wanted to get a win by the end of the season and finally I have been able to get one,” added McIlroy.

“But more satisfying than that is being able to take one of the best players in the world down the stretch and come out on top.

“Adam is a phenomenal golfer and a great competitor, and probably even a better guy. I feel a bit sorry I was the one to ruin the triple crown for him. Adam should be very proud of himself. He is a credit to the game and a credit to this country.

“It is a very prestigious tournament. Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, it seems like most of the greats of the game have won this tournament, and I am honoured to put my name on that trophy.”

McIlroy left Sydney bound for the American West Coast and the then named Northwestern Mutual World Challenge, or the Hero World Challenge as we now know the event, having succeeded in continuing a streak of winning at least one event a season.

He continued to achieve that feat for another three seasons before going individually winless in both 2017 and 2020.

Now as we near a decade since McIlroy last captured a major championship, and knowing now his complete dislike for Norman, the golf world continues to wonder if, as he said in winning the 2013 Australian Open, he can now follow in the footsteps of Masters champions Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and indeed Scott?

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