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Masters co-leader Rory McIlroy is ringleader of golf's new guard

Rory McIlroy, who has three third-place major finishes, shoots 7-under 65 to share the Masters lead with Alvaro Quiros.

Associated Press

Rory McIlroy, who has three third-place major finishes, shoots 7-under 65 to share the Masters lead with Alvaro Quiros.

AUGUSTA, Ga.

The punks showed up after dark. Witnesses say there were three.

They were young, of course. Obviously not from around here. Word is, their night started at a local mall, and then they gravitated to the middle of a residential street.

And that's where the confrontation began. Just as they were getting the hang of throwing a football, a lady from across the street demanded to know if these three Irish lads were staying in one of the houses in this neighborhood.

"I said, 'We're staying in this one,' " Rory McIlroy recalled. "I just said, 'Sorry, we'll go inside now.' "

Welcome to the next generation at the Masters.

A transition unlike any other.

Less than 12 hours after his first attempt at throwing a mall-bought football with a couple of friends from Northern Ireland, the 21-year-old McIlroy was teeing off at Augusta National on his way to a first-round 65 and a share of the Masters lead with Spain's Alvaro Quiros.

"I think he's very normal, don't you? He is what he is," said McIlroy's agent, Chubby Chandler. "I mean, he got called off the street last night for playing football. There won't be many guys that will happen to at the Masters. And there probably wasn't a lot of thought he might throw his shoulder out (with the football), because at 21, you don't think like that, do you?

"They were flinging it there and back. Little old lady comes out, and it was off you go."

This is not the first time McIlroy has shown up at one of golf's majors making a lot of noise, and it won't be the last. For this precocious prodigy has a certain twinkle in his eye and an absolutely wicked game in his bag.

You may recall he smoked the field at the first round of the British Open last year with a 63. And he won his first PGA event last year with a closing-round 62 at Quail Hollow. Since then he has made headlines for comments about Tiger Woods that were not exactly groundbreaking but were a little too honest for your typical pro athlete.

There is little doubt McIlroy is the ringleader of the next wave of golf superstars, along with Japan's Ryo Ishikawa and the United States' Rickie Fowler.

Like Woods before him, McIlroy tolerates the mundane and lives for the main stage. He has eight majors on his resume and has finished in the top 10 in half of them.

In his past five appearances in majors, he has three third-place finishes. For comparison's sake, Woods was 23 before he got that many top-five finishes. Phil Mickelson was 25.

To get a better idea of just how young McIlroy is, this is the first time he's played in a major without one of his parents staying nearby.

"He's 21 and learning fast," said Chandler. "He's probably got, what, another 80 majors to play?"

And somewhere in those next 20 years, McIlroy will have to prove he can close the deal. He is far from being a player suspected of weekend nerves, but McIlroy did fail to capitalize on two major opportunities in 2010.

He followed up his historic 63 at St. Andrews last year with a petulant-looking 80. And in the 2010 PGA Championship, he missed a birdie putt at No. 18 that would have put him in a three-way playoff.

Even before the Masters began, there was talk that McIlroy did not yet have the maturity to match Woods' modern standard of winning the tournament at age 21. Former Woods coach, and current Mickelson coach, Butch Harmon said McIlroy lacked the short game to win this week.

"I always feel I have the game to win. It's just the extra 2 percent here and extra 2 percent there that makes the difference," McIlroy said. "Those are the sort of things I've been working on this year — course strategy, game management, all of that stuff.

"I feel as if I've shot good-enough rounds in majors, and I've played well enough, to believe I can win a major."

It would not be a surprise if some of the old guard was a little put off by McIlroy's quick ascension into the top 10 of the world rankings (he's ninth).

He already turned heads this year when he wrote in a journal for Sports Illustrated that he wasn't sure if Woods would ever be able to dominate the tour the way he once did. McIlroy wrote that Woods wasn't playing badly but that he was now an ordinary golfer compared to his previous standards.

Those thoughts were not radical, but they were considered by some to be bad form for a golfer with one PGA victory on his resume.

But maybe that's just part of the changing of the guard. Speaking honestly. Speaking openly. Speaking without fear.

Sort of like a golfer throwing a football around with some friends from home the night before the biggest tournament of the year.

Which, by the way, someone asked, you weren't running patterns in the street, were you, Rory?

"No," McIlroy said, before pausing.

"I don't even know what that means."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Masters co-leader Rory McIlroy is ringleader of golf's new guard 04/08/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 8, 2011 12:08am]

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