THE BRIGHT LIGHTS of Shanghai are particularly impressive from a few thousand feet in the air, even for a weary world traveler like Rory McIlroy. On Sunday night he peered out an airplane window and said softly, "Well, there it is." Wearing black jeans, a V-neck T-shirt and a hoodie, McIlroy was slouched in the oversized leather seat of a private jet ferrying him to his next appointment. A couple of hours earlier he had finished second at the BMW Masters, banking more than $750,000 (to go along with a hefty appearance fee) and earning a fistful of World Ranking points to further consolidate his position as what the Chinese call di yi: No. 1. McIlroy's 11th top-five finish of the season—four of which are victories—capped what was just another busy week for a 23-year-old kid who has suddenly gone from merely a standout golfer to a global brand. When he wasn't busy shooting 20 under at Lake Malaren Golf Club, McIlroy was dodging questions about a rumored $250 million endorsement deal with Nike. He was glued to his phone, working out the details to spend some quality time with his girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, the world's 11th-ranked tennis player; together they will visit a half-dozen countries on three continents over the next 2½ months. He attended four press conferences and one gala dinner, worked out in the gym twice daily and put in long sessions on the practice tee concentrating on the fundamentals of his setup, with metal alignment sticks stuck in the ground as if he were the target in a game of lawn darts. Of course, McIlroy considered the highlight of the week to be winning a $50 bet from his buddy Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champ. All Rory had to do was eat a mound of broccoli covered in blueberry yogurt for breakfast.
"I didn't realize he's that hard up for cash," says McDowell. He marvels at McIlroy's ability to juggle the demands of his growing superstardom. "Amazingly, he seems to take everything in stride," adds McDowell. "One of the great things about Rory is that he remains very approachable, very happy-go-lucky, just a normal kid from Northern Ireland with a great talent."
Even before his near miss at the BMW Masters, McIlroy was the consensus player of the year, having already won the PGA Tour money title ($8.05 million in 17 events) and reaffirmed himself as a player for the ages with a blowout victory at the PGA Championship. That second major-championship victory made a sage out of Padraig Harrington, who said in April 2011 that McIlroy, not Tiger Woods, 36, might be the man to break Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors. It is a sign of McIlroy's maturity and professionalism that, even with nothing left to play for, he competed with such intensity at a Masters that's a long way from Augusta. "I owe it to the fans and to the tournament to give it my best," he said. But something else added a little urgency to McIlroy's preparations in Shanghai. The Bombardier jet he was sequestered in on Sunday night was charting a course toward Zhengzhou, where the next day McIlroy would play an 18-hole match against Woods, the player he has supplanted as the game's best and will forever be measured against. "Tiger has been a huge hero of mine growing up," McIlroy said. "To have the opportunity to compete against him, and to beat him sometimes, is quite nice."
Woods has already had an outsized role in the narrative of McIlroy's season. In March, when he won the Honda Classic to ascend to No. 1 for the first time, McIlroy was pushed to the limit by Woods's closing 62. "It had to be Tiger," McIlroy said afterward. At the PGA Championship, Woods had a share of the lead through two rounds, but McIlroy blew him away by 13 strokes on the weekend. During fall's FedEx Cup playoffs, a ton of buzz was created by their early-round pairings at the Barclays and the BMW Championship, which McIlroy won.
Throughout his career Woods has ranged from standoffish to hostile with his would-be rivals, so it has been startling to see his affection toward McIlroy. (A cynic might suggest Woods is aiding Nike's recruitment.) But two weeks before Shanghai, the two golfers had a revealing dustup at a big-money event in Turkey. McIlroy had treated the whole week like a working vacation and was looking forward to a fun game with his new friend. For Woods their match was a jihad, and he beat McIlroy 64--70. On reflection McIlroy says, "That's where we differ as characters. The day we played he was on the range at 6:30 in the morning—we're not supposed to play until noon. I'm getting up at 10, having a leisurely breakfast, rolling onto the course with half an hour to go...."
McIlroy wouldn't be fooled again by Woods's rope-a-dope. "I'm ready to play this time," he said, with a little heat. For both of them, this Monday exhibition meant nothing. And everything.
MCILROY'S ASCENSION has had the air of inevitability going back to when he was 16 and shot a course-record 61 at Royal Portrush, the ancient links on the edge of the North Atlantic. BBC footage documenting the round shows a swing of almost impossible purity, along with a questionable pink belt. McIlroy's record-shattering victory at the 2011 U.S. Open validated all the hype, but this is the year he grew up, as a person and a player. McIlroy's metamorphosis began four months after the Open, when he fired his headline-making agent, Chubby Chandler, and went to a largely unknown boutique firm run by a dapper Dubliner named Conor Ridge. The switch was a bold move by a young man ready to take control of his career, and five months later McIlroy won the Honda and rose to the top of the World Golf Ranking. "That was my big goal for this year, to get to Number 1, and I had achieved it by March," he says. "I had to reassess and set more goals."
What followed was the first minislump of his career. McIlroy and Wozniacki had met in July 2011, ringside at the David Haye--Wladimir Klitschko heavyweight fight in Hamburg, Germany. As her boyfriend struggled throughout this spring, Wozniacki was cast by the European golf press as Yoko Ono with a better backhand. But she helped inspire the work ethic that would carry McIlroy to dizzying heights. It was born of male pride. "I'd never really [jogged] before," says McIlroy, "but I thought I was pretty fit. So we went for a 45-minute run. After 30 I was completely dead. I did the extra 15 but was in pain. I've slowly built up my cardiovascular fitness, not because I need it for golf but because I want to keep up with her when we go running." He now pumps a lot of iron too, which has made his swing more stable and explosive.
With a golf club in his hands, McIlroy has always been such a natural that he didn't have to work very hard at the game. He rededicated himself after missing the cut in four of five starts beginning in May, including the U.S. Open. "There was criticism about his attitude and his work ethic, and he really stepped it up," says Luke Donald, whom McIlroy has twice overtaken at the top of the World Ranking. "Rory has realized he has such an amazing talent, and he doesn't want to waste it. The big difference I've seen this year is his short game. He's obviously worked very hard. He has the whole package now, which is kind of scary."
McIlroy's spectacular play this summer was game-changing for a golf world that has spent the three years since the fire hydrant fretting about the post-Tiger era. That McIlroy is so different from Woods in so many ways has only stoked the public's fascination. "The fans, the media, corporate sponsors, the tours—they all want their piece," says Ridge. "Tiger dealt with it by slamming down the shutters. That's not Rory's way. We're still struggling to find the proper balance." A week in China throws that into sharp relief.