Rory McIlroy, the winner of February's Dubai Desert Classic, is 20 years old and his potential has no bounds.
McIlroy destined for greatness
Rory McIlroy is 20 years old and his potential has no bounds. Seventeenth in the Official World Golf Rankings, Tiger Woods believes that one day the Ulsterman will be world No 1, an acknowledgement of his prodigious talent which McIlroy admits "gives me goose bumps". His victory in the Dubai Desert Classic in February - when, still only 19, he demonstrated maturity and composure to execute an up-and down from the bunker at the back of the 18th green to beat Justin Rose by one stroke - erased doubts that had arisen about the young man's ability to close the deal.
It also placed him under the microscope when he ventured to America to compete on the PGA Tour. At the Accenture World Match Play in Arizona he reached the quarter finals and only lost by 2&1 against Australian Geoff Ogilvy, the eventual winner. "His game is very similar to the young Tiger," Ogilvy enthused. "Rory is by far the best young player I've played with and he's going to be one of the best in the world for years to come."
In his first strokeplay event he finished 13th in the Honda Classic, which he followed up with a tie for 20th in the CA Championship at Doral and another tie for 20th at The Masters. Sports Illustrated featured him on the cover with an accompanying headline: "Rory's Story - how a 19-year-old from working-class Belfast rose to the top." He has amassed more than £2million (Dh11.9m) in prize money and his length and accuracy off the tee, allied to a formidable short game, ensures that he will be counted among the contenders for the US Open next week at Bethpage Black. His rise has been meteoric.
But in his home environment in Holywood, Co Down, a small town on the outskirts of Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he is still known locally as "Rors", it is clear that his feet remain planted on the ground. "I love Northern Ireland, I love coming home and I love Belfast," he says. "Most of my friends are at university and I still socialise with them and talk to them regularly which keeps me grounded.
"Mum, Dad and me, we're just normal people and I'm the same old Rory to all my mates. I hope that never changes. When I'm on tour I don't get to see my girlfriend, Holly, quite as much, so it's always nice when we can get away and spend time with each other. She also helps to keep me grounded. We've been going out for a few years and she's been really supportive. Anything I do she backs me 100 per cent which is important because everything has happened so fast, so early.
"I turned pro after the Walker Cup in 2007, went to one stage of Tour School and that's all I had to do. I got my card in two European Tour events and had five invites to do it. "I know I just have to keep my head screwed on, keep my feet on the ground and keep striving to be the best golfer in the world. If I can keep working hard, it will happen one day, hopefully." The only son of working-class parents, he began hitting golf balls while still in nappies and they devoted their lives to his passion for the game.
His father Gerry, whose own father had worked in the shipyards in Belfast, was a bartender and a cleaner. For eight years he held down three jobs at once. His mother Rosie, whose Dad drove an ice cream van, was a stay-at-home mum during the day but she worked a night shift at the 3M plant in Belfast, boxing and stacking rolls of adhesive tape. Together they were determined that Rory would escape troubled Northern Ireland and the hardship of their own youth.
"That's a big part of why I've done so well," he reflects. "They sacrificed nearly everything for me to pay for trips to America and to junior events all over the world so that I could gain experience and try to progress as a golfer. "It would be nice to be able to repay them and maybe buy them a house at some point down the line, just to say thanks for everything they have done for me." Aged two, McIlroy was driving golf balls 40 yards. By the age of nine, he was flying to places like Miami to win the Doral Publix Under-10 championship and a year later he came third in the U12 Junior World Championships. Gerry and Rosie made these trips the family's summer holidays.
"When Rory was 11 we put him on a plane, alone, to go to Utah for a summer to stay with a family we had met through junior golf," Rosie recalled. "I cried for days." When he returned with an American accent and his hair dyed blond Gerry was overjoyed. He was living his life and this is what their mission was all about. People in the game began to hear about him and Ryder Cup hero Darren Clarke took him under his wing.
He hit a 68 in the first round of the British Open Championship as an 18-year-old amateur at Carnoustie - the only bogey-free round on a martial, windswept day - and finished tied for 42nd to win the Silver Medal as low amateur. Padraig Harrington, the champion, was effusive in his praise. "I'm glad I got in before he gets one," Harrington said. "I think he'll be winning a few Open Championships in the future."
Remarkably, McIlroy has never worked with a coach other than former Holywood Golf Club pro Michael Bannon, who has known him since he was six. "I got all of the basics and fundamentals right with Michael at quite a young age and I still go to see him once or twice a month to have a check-up, basically," McIlroy explains. "I find it extraordinary that players can work every day with a coach. I would get too confused. I'm quite a natural player, I just like to go out and get on with it and shoot the best score possible. When Bob Torrance [the revered golf coach and father of Sam] watched me hitting shots on the range at the Scottish Open in 2005 he said, 'I'm not even going to say anything to you. I'm going to leave you to it.' That was a big compliment coming from him.
"I've proved to myself that I can compete at major championships. I was up there after the first round of the Open Championship as an 18-year-old and, if I can gain more experience in the majors, I don't think there's any reason why I can't be contending for them. Sometimes I worry a little bit that my confidence can come across as arrogance but I believe in my ability and the people who know me well enough know that I'm not arrogant and I'm not cocky. Everything has happened very quickly but I just want to keep doing what I'm doing and there is no reason that I can't go out and win three, four or five events every year on Tour."
His caddie, JP Fitzgerald, has carried the bag for Ernie Els, Paul McGinley and Clarke but working for McIlroy is different. "It's a great thrill and his enthusiasm rubs off on you because he's such a nice kid," Fitzgerald relates. "Fearless, too. I'll always remember at Doral when he had 265 yards to go into a strong wind on the par-five eighth hole on the second day and he couldn't miss an inch of it. As I handed him the three-wood, he just said, 'It's time for a McIlroy special.' He knew he had to bust it and he did [the ball landed 7ft from the hole].
"It was the shot of a lifetime but, sure, every week he seems to hit one of them." Despite the close protection offered by Chubby Chandler and his International Sports Management agency, McIlroy has not been immune from controversy. A four-putt double bogey on 16, a triple bogey on 18 and an investigation as to whether he kicked the sand in a greenside bunker on the final hole - which could have resulted in his disqualification - threatened to permanently scar his first appearance at Augusta National.
But he regrouped, took just 31 strokes on the back nine on Sunday in a redemptive final-round 70 and came away with renewed conviction that he can succeed in the big tournaments. "I learnt not to dance in the bunker that week and I'll not be making the same mistake again," he says with a smile. "Experience counts when you are in contention as you know what to expect but, if I had been playing my best at The Masters, I believe I would have been contending to win, for sure."
Last month he angered Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie when he described the biennial event between Europe and the United States as "a great spectacle but an exhibition at the end of the day". Monty's response was terse. "The Ryder Cup is most definitely not an exhibition," he insisted. "Having played in it, having experienced the emotion and the stress of it, I can assure you of that." Although McIlroy's perspective has not changed, he is keen to clarify his position. "
I'm sure if I play a couple of Ryder Cups I might have a different view but what I was trying to say was that the Ryder Cup is not one of my most important goals in terms of my career overall," he declares. "I'm not disrespecting it. I'm just stating my view." That he will be in Monty's team is almost a given, for his talent is acknowledged in America - where golf fans and commentators alike have embraced a story that is pure Hollywood, California - as much as it is in Holywood and the rest of Europe.
He tells a story about coming out of a shopping mall in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and a chance encounter with Jack Nicklaus. "He was just about to get in his car and he sort of took a second look and recognised me, which was seriously cool," McIlroy recalls. "I went up and said, 'Mr Nicklaus, how are you doing? It's a pleasure to meet you,' and Dad just stepped up and said, 'Jack, how are you doing?' It was so funny, like he'd known him for 20 years or something."
Nicklaus, who lives nearby, thought it was neat, too. When he got home he said to his wife, "Barbara, you won't believe who I ran into at the mall today..." Woods's open obsession with Nicklaus's records is not one shared by McIlroy - not yet anyway. Sensibly, he points out that, having played in only two, "it would silly to talk of winning majors when I'm really trying to contend in them first".
He will be trying to do just that at Bethpage Black where Woods was the only golfer in the field to finish under par in 2002 when he won the second of his three US Opens to date. For the 20-year-old, putting will be the key. "It is the most important and most pressurised part of the game and crucial in a tournament like the US Open," McIlroy suggests. "I probably practise more on the putting green than I do hitting shots on the driving range.
"It's probably 60 per cent to 40 per cent practising my short game because, if you miss a green and you can get up and down, you've got a chance to save a shot. "My dad's always had a pretty good short game, he's always been a good pitcher and putter and I've learnt from him a bit. He's always been a good pitcher and putter. "My short game is something I've had since I started playing, knocking balls along the hallway and into the washing machine at home. I think it will be one of the keys at Bethpage Black."
When McIlroy won in Dubai he came off the course, rang the barman at Holywood Golf Club and told him that the drinks were on him for the rest of the night. If he were to win at Bethpage, he might have to speak to the people at Guinness and Bushmills directly for a supply of stout and whiskey that could fill Belfast Lough. email@example.com