Balancing act is the real test for Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland hits a tee

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland hits a tee shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 112th U.S. Open at The Olympic Club. (June 13, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

Mark Herrmann

Newsday columnist Mark Herrmann Mark Herrmann

Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988,

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SAN FRANCISCO

Just as he did last year, entering the U.S. Open, Rory McIlroy came to town with a lot to prove. And just as he did last year, he proved it. Last year, he had to show he could overcome an epic collapse at the Masters. This year, he had to show he could reach home plate from the mound on the fly.

The fact he is defending champion of the Open got him an invitation to toss the ceremonial first pitch at the Giants game Tuesday night. It was a huge deal for McIlroy, who was treated like a celebrity by the ballplayers. He got to meet Willie Mays before the game. Wearing a Giants jersey, he let fly. The throw was straight and true.

Now, with the Open set to begin Thursday, he is on to the next item for the week: Prove that he can handle success as well as he handled failure.

With a record-setting eight-stroke victory at Congressional last year, McIlroy left the field in the dust. More impressive, he did the same to his Augusta nightmare. The win at the Open said a lot about his mental toughness, and his future. He looked like a cinch to just keep on winning.

To be sure, he has had some good moments. But stuff happens in young lives that are blessed with good fortune. Choices have to be made, hellos and goodbyes are said. McIlroy left his agent, Chubby Chandler, and his former girlfriend. He joined the PGA Tour and became an item with tennis pro Caroline Wozniacki. The Giants made a bobblehead in his image. "I think it's maybe better looking than me, which is a good thing," he said.

He also has had an up-and-down year as a golfer: a win at the Honda Classic, an awful 77 in the third round at the Masters and missed cuts at The Players and the Memorial, a top 10 in Memphis last week.

So the 23-year-old comes into this Open in the climbing mode, rather than being on top of a hill, which is another good thing.

"You're not just happy with top-10s anymore, and you're not happy finishing in the top five," he said. "Maybe a couple of years ago it would have been a step in the right direction -- everything is good, you're knocking on the door. But when you get yourself into positions like I did last week you want to finish them off and get wins.

"It's just finding a balance of everything, with getting enough practice, sponsor commitments, media. It's something I feel like I'm learning to do. But I'm not complaining. I feel like I'm in a great place and I'm happy to be doing what I'm doing."

The U.S. Open actually has more to prove than the defending champion does. The Open is known as the toughest test in golf, but last year, it looked like just a little quiz, with the answers provided. McIlroy's 16 under par finish was the lowest in the event's 111-year history.

Mike Davis, the head of the U.S. Golf Association, was confident Wednesday that the Olympic Club will hold up.

Expect McIlroy to do more than hold up, if not this week, then eventually. He has a self-deprecatory streak and an easy manner. He also has a work ethic in his genes, knowing that his parents did menial work to support his golf and help make him a young millionaire.

"I'm going to really enjoy the week and enjoy the challenge," he said.

Having grown up in Northern Ireland, he didn't play baseball and had seen only one big league game before Tuesday. Still, he worked hard in preparing for that pitch. It was a perfect pitch.