BETHESDA, Md. — They came in thousands from Maryland and Washington to crown golf’s new king.
On the final day of the 111th U.S. Open Championship, Rory McIlroy was greeted by a cacophony of whistles on the first tee like a thousand kettles boiling over. He got standing O’s on every green. “Bring it home, Rory,” yelled one fan. “Make some history, maaan. You got it,” roared another. All the voices had American accents. McIlroy transcends national rivalries. He’s the Universal Golfer.
Dave Stockton, the 1991 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, is the latest guru to be recruited by Team Rory to ensure the prodigy achieves the greatness his talent demands. Stockton spoke to McIlroy before the final round. “I told him to stay aggressive and enjoy it the way Arnold Palmer used to enjoy it,” Stockton said. “He would be the sixth non-U.S. player to win in eight years and I gotta tell you, the American people love him so much they’re not going to care.”
People used to revere Tiger. They LOVE Rory. They serenaded him along his victory parade. “Let’s go, Rory, let’s go,” they chanted — America’s version of Ireland’s “Ole, ole, ole, ole.”
It has been a remarkable journey for McIlroy. As an 8-year-old, he used to chip golf balls with a plastic club into the washing machine at his Holywood home in Northern Ireland. The 22-year-old has spent the last four days tossing the world’s greatest players into a spin cycle and hanging them out to dry. With a nod to Bruce Springsteen we have seen the future of golf and its name is Rory McIlroy.
Just in time, too. Golf fans have been desperate for a new hero, and they found one at Congressional. McIlroy has cracked America quicker than the Beatles. How appropriate that all this has happened in the nation’s capital, just a 20-minute cab ride from the White House. McIlroy has lived up to the hype. He really is the new Tiger — but smiling, handing balls to kids, and exhibiting a charm that makes everyone want to root for him — win or lose.
“He was holding a golf club before he could walk,” said his mother, Rosie. “That’s the way we were woken up in the morning: banged over the head with a plastic golf club.”
He was hitting 40-yard drives when he was 2 years old. At age 9, he won the Under 10 World Championship at Doral, Fla. At age 11, he shot level par at his home club in Holywood, near Belfast. At age 13, he was a scratch golfer. At age 15, he smashed the course record at Royal Portrush with a 61. He was then invited to play in his first professional event, the 2005 British Masters and represented Europe in the Junior Ryder Cup.
The following year he won the European Amateur Championship, and played for Ireland in the Eisenhower Trophy, the amateur team championship. In 2007, he shot that sensational 68 in the first round of the Open at Carnoustie (the only bogey-free round of the day). He made the weekend cut to be the first Irish amateur to win the Silver Medal prize for best amateur since Joe Carr in 1965. McIlroy then ended his amateur career in Great Britain & Ireland’s Walker Cup team as the No. 1 amateur in the world.
He turned pro in 2007 as a freckle-faced, skinny 18-year-old with a wiry mop top fashioned at the Marc Bolan Bang a Gong School of Hairdressing. “I have no problem saying I am going to be one of the best golfers in the world,” he said in 2008. “I don’t want that to sound cocky because I’m not.”
It didn’t and he isn’t. Rory still remains grounded and loyal to his working-class roots. “We lived in a four-bedroom semi with a bit of a garden. Just a normal house,” he said of his childhood. To fund their son’s golf, Rosie worked factory shifts in Belfast, Gerry juggled three jobs including bartending and cleaning at a rugby club. McIlroy paid tribute to them at Congressional. “They sacrificed summer holidays so they could take me to play golf,” he said. “I’m very thankful for how far they’ve gotten me.”
McIlroy loves nothing more than taking weeks off from his Hollywood lifestyle to slip back into spending Holywood nights down the pub with his school mates watching Manchester United on TV or crashing out at someone’s house listening to music (Kings of Leon, 50 Cent) or watching movies (The Hangover, Anchorman). As McIlroy’s fame explodes around the globe, it will become increasingly more difficult for him to hang on to normalcy. But he will not retreat into a gated private community anytime soon. McIlroy plans to stay public.
“You can be the No. 1 golfer in the world, but if you seem personable, you’ll be able to do it,” he said. “Tiger put up a barrier from the media and the public and so no one could get to him. I am determined to hang on to my ordinariness.”
McIlroy is indeed an ordinary kid — with an extraordinary talent. “Perhaps we’re ready for golf’s new superstar,” said his best pal Graeme McDowell. There will be more success and plenty of failures for McIlroy. But for his mother, nothing will change. “He’s still my wee baby,” Rosie said.