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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 had caused a two-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 cut 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 could have sought privacy at the far end of the range. Instead, 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.
There were more smiles than drops of sweat in this practice session.
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. One of them was a photo of McIlroy posing with the U.S. Open trophy from Congressional, 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, and 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.
That wasn't the case at the start of the year.
McIlroy is no stranger to attention, and he brought that on himself. Winning the U.S. Open with a record score. A relationship with Caroline Wozniacki, who was No. 1 in women's tennis when they first started dating. Winning the PGA Championship by a record eight shots. Climbing to No. 1 in the world, and then winning three more tournaments against the strongest fields, made it look as if the kid would stay on top for years to come.
And yes, the Nike deal.
With blaring music and a laser show in Abu Dhabi, he was introduced as the latest global star to market the swoosh and made a commercial with Tiger Woods. Then, he plunged into a slump. That's not unusual for McIlroy, except the expectations have never been this great, the number of eyeballs on him never this many.
A year ago, there was one stretch in the late spring when he missed the cut in four of five tournaments, the last as defending champion at the U.S. Open. This year, he missed the cut in Abu Dhabi, lost in the first round of Match Play and quit out of frustration after 27 holes of the Honda Classic.
In Houston, his shoulders never sagged even as he was on the verge of another weekend off.
"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."
If there was a moment that showed the state of his game, it was early in the second round at Houston. McIlroy was some 20 yards behind Dustin Johnson and Keegan Bradley off the tee as he played tentatively and tried to avoid bogeys. After back-to-back birdies, he swung more freely and blasted a tee shot some 15 yards beyond Johnson.
He's not that far off.
Asked what will be written about him at the end of the year, a smiling McIlroy said:
"Hopefully, the same things that were written about me at the end of last year."
There's a phrase back home in Northern Ireland that goes, "Catch yourself on," which loosely translated means wise up or don't get a big head. McIlroy concedes that has been put to the test this year.
"I've learned when you get into this position, you have to remember what got you to this point in the first place, which is practice and playing," he said. "Sometimes, you have to do the right things for yourself."
He also is guided by wise words from his father, Gerry, who tells him it doesn't cost anything to be nice to people. That remains his hallmark.
McIlroy was in a starter's tent next to the 10th tee Saturday, looking into a trash container where his caddie had dropped a piece of the shaker used to mix a protein drink. A volunteer interrupted by trying to speak a phrase in Gaelic.
McIlroy looked at him blankly and said, "I don't speak Irish."
There was awkward silence as the volunteer, sensing this conversation was going nowhere and probably shouldn't have been started, looked for a graceful exit. "Play well," he said as he backed out of the tent.
McIlroy smiled and looked the volunteer right in the eye.
"Now that," he said, "I understand."