Rory’s balancing act
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

McIlroy: All grown up.

At the 2010 Quail Hollow Championship, Rory McIlroy, who was only 20-years-old, nearly missed the cut before holing out for eagle on the par-5 No. 7 (his 16th hole) in the second round to make it on the number. It feels like it was just the other week that McIlroy put on a weekend clinic, firing rounds of 66-62 to capture his first PGA Tour victory, which included a double-breaking 30-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to top off the stirring come-from-behind win.

Now, two years later, the 22-year-old reigning U.S. Open champion is back in Charlotte, rested and ready for competition after only making one start in the last seven weeks to jump-start his summer. McIlroy, who has always been mature beyond his years, turns 23 on Friday and said he’s cutting back to about 23 events this season compared to around 30 last year.

“I’ve got a good stretch of golf coming up, here, The Players, back in (Europe) at Wentworth, Memorial and then the U.S. Open, so I’ve got a nice little run of five in seven weeks, four in five, five in seven,” said McIlroy on Wednesday in his pre-tournament presser at Quail Hollow Club on Wednesday.  Looking forward to that and I want to play good here and try and build up to the U.S. Open.  That’s the next big target for me.”

After last month’s Masters disappointment, Rory went home to Northern Ireland for two weeks and left his golf clubs in Florida. He jetted around Europe with his tennis star girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, including a trip to his hometown Belfast before going to England and Nice, and eventually Germany. The couple went to the Newbury races, where they had the opportunity to meet and chat with the Queen of England.

In passing on Tuesday I cracked a joke to Rory about his brush with royalty. “I didn’t have to do a curtsy thing,” said Rory, while mimicking the gesture.

What did you do then? Bow?

No. He had to wait for the Queen to extend her hand and then he shook it.

“I just had to be on my best behavior, which is difficult for me,” he joked.

After his adventurous and relaxing two weeks, McIlroy returned to Florida and spent seven days practicing and working with his coach Michael Bannon and Steve McGregor, who are both at Quail Hollow, as well.

“We all did some really good work, so I was happy with that,” said Rory.

He’s reduced his schedule this year because he doesn’t want to burn out and believes in the importance of enjoying life off the course — something he’s always emphasized.

“I want to try and prolong my career as much as I can,” said Rory. “I sometimes take a little bit too much out of myself, especially at the end of the season. Basically the most important time for me in the golf season is from the start of April until the end of August.  That’s when all the big tournaments are and that’s when you want to play your best golf.  All the stuff either side of that is more preparation work and making sure that your game is getting ready and your body is physically ready for that time of the year.”

Smart kid. From the Masters to the U.S. Open, there’s a solid stretch of premier events and venues and you have to pick and choose your spots. Just because McIlroy is playing less, it doesn’t mean he’s not giving it his best effort every time he tees it up. Let’s put it this way — it’s like making the most of his time and practicing with purpose.

“For me, I’ll play hard through ‑‑ I’ve got a busy stretch coming up now,” said Rory.  I know I’ve been criticized a little bit for not playing as much as some other guys leading into these few weeks, but I know I’ve got a big stretch coming up, and I want to be as fresh as possible for this.”

While he seems to have it down pretty well already, Rory says he’s still learning to nail down the perfect balance. It’s a process, you know.

“I’m trying to find the perfect balance between golf and having a normal life and everything else,” he said. “For me there’s more to life than just golf.  I don’t know if people are surprised to hear that, but I have a lot more going on in my life than just golf.”

Exactly! — it’s just a game or sport — whatever you want to call it — after all. Rory’s so normal and nice for a child prodigy that it scares me sometimes.

(AP Photo/Bob Leverone)