Commentary

Rory McIlroy leading, having a ball

Updated: April 8, 2011, 10:28 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Chubby Chandler chuckled telling the story, shaking his head at the same time.

It was the night before the first round of the Masters, a moment players have been pointing toward for days, weeks, months, and one of his prized clients chose to play football in the Augusta streets with his buddies.

"Your football, not our football," Chandler said, knowing that his audience incorrectly assumed Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy was kicking a soccer ball around. "They were slinging it ... passing it there and back. Then a little old lady came and -- off you go."

Apparently, McIlroy and his friends were making too much noise in front of their rented home, and out came a neighbor to admonish them.

Instead of pulling the "do you know who I am?" routine, McIlroy apologized -- it was already dark -- and retreated inside, his first-round tee time only about 12 hours away.

Clearly, this is a new way to prepare for major championships.

McIlroy put himself in the mix at his third consecutive major championship Thursday, shooting a 7-under-par 65 to share the 18-hole lead with Spain's Alvaro Quiros. At 21, McIlroy is the youngest player to lead after the first round of the Masters -- breaking the record set by Seve Ballesteros, who was 23 in 1980.

[+] EnlargeRory McIlroy
Andrew Redington/Getty ImagesRory McIlroy took three weeks off before the Masters and was throwing a football around with pals on the eve of Round 1. Naturally, he shot a 7-under-par 65 on Thursday to take the early lead.

Not that it is a surprise these days. McIlroy is playing in just his ninth major championship and already has three top-3 finishes, including the previous two -- third at both the Open Championship and the PGA Championship.

"I seem to play well in the big occasion," said McIlroy, who is ranked ninth in the world. "The big occasions are something that I'm learning to deal with, and I feel as if I'm dealing with them pretty well at the minute.

"That second day at St. Andrews -- hopefully it doesn't happen, but say I'm 2 over after three [holes on Friday] ... I know it's OK, it's fine, you're still in the golf tournament. Just being patient and realizing that you don't need to play spectacular golf for 72 holes to win."

McIlroy was referring to the 80 he shot during the second round last year at the Old Course, where a day earlier he had tied a major championship record with a 63. The 80 occurred on a day with brutal winds that, for a time, caused the suspension of play -- almost unheard of in Britain.

"I think it was the wait, not the wind," said Chandler, an Englishman who runs International Sports Management and who has a stable of non-American superstars including Lee Westwood and Ernie Els. "The experience from those weeks is going to put him in good stead here. He's learning from it."

McIlroy took the unusual step of taking the past three weeks off prior to the Masters.

Following the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, McIlroy went home to Northern Ireland for nine days, then returned to Florida, playing golf around the Palm Beach area.

He made a visit to Augusta National last week, returned to Florida and then came back here with a couple of his buddies.

"He's been on a golfing holiday with his mates," Chandler said. "When he got here, I knew he was going to play all right. He had a spark in his eye and a bounce. He's among three kids."

And that didn't change much during the tournament. McIlroy played the first round with Rickie Fowler and Jason Day, who at age 23 was the senior member of the group.

"Obviously he played really well today," Fowler said of McIlroy. "Nice to see him do that. He looked like he was swinging with a lot of confidence. I thought he was going to get a couple of more, close to 8 or 9 [under]. But it was nice to see someone play well like that."

If there is a knock on McIlroy, it is that he has not won more. He has been a pro now for more than three years, but his only victories were at the Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour in 2009 and at last year's Quail Hollow Championship on the PGA Tour, where he stormed from behind to win with a final-round 62.

"He's got a lot of talent," said Tiger Woods, whose 71 left him six strokes back. "And as we all know, he's got a wonderful golf swing and it's just a matter of time before he starts winning a bunch of tournaments."

As McIlroy knows, one day does not make this or any other tournament. He saw it all fall apart last year during Round 2 at St. Andrews. He led the PGA Championship with four holes to go at Whistling Straits and came up a shot short of a playoff. But getting off to this kind of start is certainly desirable.

McIlroy spent the offseason working on his fitness and his strategy. He felt good about his game coming in, got the proper rest and then on the eve of the tournament ... was playing football?

"I sort of got into American football from being over here," McIlroy said, "and just wanted to learn how to throw it a little bit better. Bought a football, threw it around a little bit. Passes the time."

Someone asked McIlroy whether he was running pass patterns in the street.

"I don't even know what that means," he said.

That, of course, brought plenty of laughter.

But as far as the golf is concerned, McIlroy is right there -- again -- and that is no joke.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com