x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

McIlroy keeps feet on the ground

Millionaire lifestyle is part of a balancing act for world No 3.

Rory McIlroy loves playing in the UAE.
Rory McIlroy loves playing in the UAE.

ABU DHABI // In September 2007, the Jumeirah Group invested in a rising young golfer they hoped one day would develop into a household name.

According to the Dubai-based company's executives, Rory McIlroy perfectly fitted their business model: he was young, exciting and down-to-earth.

Now 22, the Northern Irishman is undeniably still young, and he provided some of the most enthralling golf the sport has witnessed for years while capturing the US Open this season and nearly winning the Masters.

Yet his recent decision to split from long-term agent Andrew "Chubby" Chandler has raised questions about McIlroy's evolving pragmatism.

One of the key reasons McIlroy cited for moving to Horizon Sports Management: he felt that his personal brand needed to be developed.

Yet, as the Irish Times recently noted "every move takes him away from the 'normal guy' persona that is central to his appeal".

Instead of his childhood sweetheart, he now dates Caroline Wozniacki, the world's No 1-ranked women's tennis player.

Instead of his home in Holywood, he now lives in a €2.2 million (Dh10.5m) mansion. He drives a Lamborghini, and at other times an Audi R8. He attracts attention from across the globe and has been labelled - more than once - the best golfer on the planet.

Yet speak to the boy with the Belfast accent and he appears as grounded as he did when he made his European Tour debut at the Dubai Desert Classic in 2006 - and e missed the cut after shooting an opening-day 72.

"I don't feel like I deserve that [best golfer] title," he told The National. "Luke [Donald] is No 1 and deserves to be so, as he has had an amazing year. Week in and week out, he has consistently delivered, and that is why he is No 1 at the moment.

"I certainly hope to become the best in the world one day, but I need to consistently perform at my very best and win more tournaments to have a chance of meriting that title."

McIlroy is ranked No 3 in the world but was the sensation of 2011 as he squandered a Sunday lead at Augusta National only to bounce back remarkably to secure his first major win in Maryland two months later.

He also won events in Shanghai and Hong Kong and rates his season as "8.5 out of 10".

"It was a great year for me. In particular, securing my first major win after an initial disappointment was a big deal," he said. "I consider what happened on Sunday of the Masters a real learning curve, but I still have to knock a mark off for that one."

McIlroy will compete at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championships next month alongside, among others, former world No 1 players Lee Westwood and Tiger Woods. The appearance by Woods will be his first in the capital and McIlroy appreciates that attention will increase because of the American's involvement. "Tiger has achieved so much and is the only current player to have won 14 majors so people will always want to watch him play," he said.

"What he has done for the modern game of golf is phenomenal, and no matter what he does, he will always draw a huge crowd."

McIlroy's new management company will likely look to siphon some of that attention for their own client and the Ulsterman is happy to oblige - so long as it does not affect his game.

At the Dubai World Championships earlier this month, he took time out to do promotional work for Jumeirah.

Keeping their young ambassador's feet on the ground was clearly not the objective: he found himself hitting balls off the helipad at the top of the Burj Al Arab. "The off-course stuff comes with what I have achieved on course, so while it takes a little bit of getting used to, I generally quite enjoy it," he said.

"As the demands for my time off the course increase, I just need to manage my schedule on and off the course better, so that they don't take their toll.

"I'm fortunate enough to be young, healthy and hopefully have a long career ahead of me, so I just need to pace myself. I love what I do and consider myself very lucky to be able to do it for a living."

It is humble statements such as these that should be the central focal point of McIlroy's disputed but developing brand.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae