Great Expectations: Rory McIlroy

August 6, 2009

Nineteen-year-old Rory McIlroy had a decision to make. In the second round of the WGC-CA Championship at Doral’s Blue Monster in Miami earlier this year, his drive at the par-5 8th left him 268 frightening yards over water and into a Wizard of Oz wind.

“I’m going for it,” McIlroy told his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald.

“No one’s getting there today,” Fitzgerald objected.

The kid from Northern Ireland pulled his 3-wood.

“It’s time for a Rory McIlroy special.”

McIlroy unleashed a skyscraping shot — complete with a cocksure club twirl — that rolled to six feet. He made eagle and shot 66. “It was the best shot I’ve ever seen,” said Fitzgerald, who has caddied for Ernie Els and Darren Clarke.

Says McIlroy, a bit sheepishly, “I guess I’ve never lacked self-belief.”

One bright Belfast morning, Gerry McIlroy and his son Rory ran into their butcher, Mr. Nixon.

‘Rory, how’s your game?’ Nixon asked.

‘Mr. Nixon, I’m playing the best golf of my life.’

McIlroy was 7.

“It’s like I’m leading two different lives,” McIlroy says. One week, he’s golf’s golden child destined to dethrone Tiger Woods. “Then I come home to Ireland and I’m picking up Holly [his girlfriend, 18] from school,” he says. “It’s a balancing act that makes me the person I am.”

On a warm spring day at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, S.C., McIlroy is the prodigious Tour star with a face full of freckles and a bag full of shots. He looks beat. Two days earlier, he finished tied for 20th in his first Masters. Still, he’s direct and polite. “Cheers” this, “no worries” that. Beyond bending golf balls to his will, he has a rare talent for making boastful comments (“I’m one of the best bunker players,” “Obviously, winning the career slam is not beyond the realm of possibility”) that seem like innocent observations. His hair is big. His head, not so much. Maybe it’s the up-talking Irish brogue? That makes everything he says sound like he’s asking a question?

“What drives me is to be better than everyone,” he says. “When I was little, my parents gave me this self-belief. I believed I could do anything. Now, I want to become the best player in the world. I’ll know it when I walk to the range and look at all the other players, and I say, ‘No one can beat me.’ That must be what it’s like for Tiger. That would be pretty cool.”

Cool would describe McIlroy’s 2009 season. In February, he went wire-to-wire to win the Dubai Desert Classic, his first professional victory. It capped a 16-month run on the European Tour that brought 11 top-10s. In less than a year, his world ranking rocketed from 200-plus to No. 16 (he’s the youngest to crack the top 20), and he’s still climbing the charts, heading toward No. 1 with a mullet.

Rory-palooza then came Stateside. He tied for fifth at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, met Jack Nicklaus, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Masters preview (one sold on eBay for $38.53), played in — and was nearly DQ’d from — his first Masters, and made six of seven cuts, with five top-20s. Along the way, golf’s biggest names formed a chorus singing “Rory Hallelujah.” Tom Watson: “I love his fire and passion. I look for a young player who has that love for the game, that look in their eyes, and Rory has it.” Countryman Darren Clarke, McIlroy’s mentor (along with Nick Faldo) since the prodigy was 12: “He has all the shots…I’m sure his talent will give him everything he wants.” Mark O’Meara: “He’s better than Tiger was at 19.” Even Woods called McIlroy his likely successor as World No. 1.

For his part, McIlroy humbly credits his blue-collar parents for his career. “I owe so much to my mum and dad,” he says. “They worked several jobs so I could play golf. I’ll never forget their sacrifice.” He means it. Now worth an estimated $10 million, McIlroy recently bought his folks a $600,000 house in Belfast, five minutes from his five-bedroom home. This way, mum can still do his laundry twice a week.

One day, two course regulars watched McIlroy practicing on No. 17.

‘What’s your name?’ they asked.

‘Rory McIlroy.’

‘Are you any good?’

‘No — I’m brilliant.’

McIlroy was 9.

The story of Rory starts at Holywood (pronounced “Hollywood”) Golf Club, a par-69 parkland course on the outskirts of Belfast. When Rory was 2, his father Gerry watched in delight as his only child belted 40-yard shots with a cut-down driver. By age 8, Rory was the club’s youngest member. At home, he tirelessly chipped balls through the kitchen door and into the belly of the washing machine.

Rory loved golf, but Gerry, himself a scratch player, didn’t realize his son had a gift until he won the World Under 10s Championship at Doral, five shots clear of the field of 80 kids. Instead of pushing Rory, Gerry and Rosie McIlroy pushed each other. They made a pact to fund Rory’s golf development, whatever it took. Lessons, clubs, plane tickets — it adds up, and a second mortgage on their spare two-bedroom house would bring no bounty. Gerry spent the next decade pulling 100-hour weeks cleaning locker rooms at a rugby club and wiping down tables at the local pub. Rosie worked the graveyard shift, boxing countless rolls of tape on a 3M assembly line. “We didn’t want to look back years later and wonder, ‘What if? What could Rory have been?’ ” Gerry says. “We wanted him to have every opportunity.”

At 9, McIlroy began honing his swing with local pro Michael Bannon. Small crowds would gather on Holywood’s range to watch the 4-foot-nothing kid bend shots — left, right, high, low — on command, literally. One drill was designed to enhance his natural feel, Gerry says. “When Rory reached the top of his backswing, Michael would say, ‘High draw!’ or ‘Low cut!’ and Rory would instinctively hit that shot shape, mid-swing.”

Rory has great hands, says Bannon, who still works with McIlroy. “He can spin the ball out of a greenside bunker with a 3-iron,” Bannon says. “For him, swinging a club is as natural as using a knife or fork.”

At age 11, McIlroy carded his first ace. At 12, he broke 70. He won the West of Ireland Championship at 15. That same year, in an amateur event, he hung a course-record 61 at 117-year-old Royal Portrush. In 2007, as the world’s top-ranked amateur, McIlroy won the silver medal (T-42) in the Open at Carnoustie, where he watched countryman Padraig Harrington lift the Claret Jug. “I wanted to turn pro,” McIlroy recalls. “It was time.”

RING, RING! McIlroy grabbed the phone in his Tucson hotel room. Nick Faldo calling. “You might find this useful,” Faldo told McIlroy, who had an early tee time the next morning at this year’s Match Play. “The desert gets cold overnight, and so does your ball on the ground. That can mean three yards. Something to keep in mind for those early holes.”

Faldo met McIlroy when Rory, 12, enrolled in the Faldo Series, a golf-development program the six-time major winner founded to nurture junior golfers. Oddly enough, as the likes of Watson and Woods praise McIlroy, it’s the mentor Faldo saying, Don’t uncork the anointing oil just yet.

“Tiger, Jack, Hogan, the special ones come along every 20 or 30 years,” Faldo says. “Everyone wants another to pop up and take on Tiger. And here comes this fresh-faced, curly-haired kid from Ireland. He has the trigger, the eye-hand coordination. Now he has to match his desire to his talent. It’s a learning curve. Does he learn from his lousy shots? How does he handle pressure? Will he be in awe of Tiger, his idol? All of this determines, as we say [in the U.K.], your ‘bottle.’ “

Beyond morning frost reports, Faldo has a word of advice for McIlroy: Ignore the media. “Right now, he can do no wrong. But they [British press] will turn on him. In a year, his self-belief becomes arrogance. Don’t read the papers. It’s not only bad for the trees.”

A forest of pines has already perished for reasons unrelated to the Irishman’s swing. McIlroy came this close to getting bounced from his maiden Masters after swiping at some sand with his cleat — a would-be Rules infraction — on the 18th hole on Friday. A month later, McIlroy’s foot caused him more trouble when he lodged it in his mouth. During the Irish Open McIlroy called the Ryder Cup “a great spectacle for golf, but an exhibition… [It’s] not that important of an event for me.” He later softened his stance, but the media storm McIlroy’s remarks triggered indicated how much clout his opinions already carry.

If there’s one facet of McIlroy’s game that’s underhyped, it’s his length. He weighs 160 pounds, minus hair. His 5’7″ frame begs you to kick sand in his Huck-Finn face. Yet he’s longer than Moby Dick — he averaged 303 yards per poke on Tour through May, which would place him fourth in driving distance. At the Masters, he regularly muscled it close to 340 yards, airmailing playing partner Anthony Kim. McIlroy reached the par-5 13th with driver/8-iron. “Rory has hyper-mobility,” Bannon says. “His joints, muscles, torso. It’s like he’s made of elastic. It lets him create enormous torque in his backswing, and it’s all unleashed [coming down].” Basically, he’s a freak.

McIlroy was at Holywood when a group of older members approached.

‘How are you playing?’ they asked.

‘I’m having the round of my life!’ he said.

McIlroy was 10.

It’s not easy to putt over the din of your own chattering molars, yet there McIlroy stood in February on the 18th green in Dubai, his six-shot lead down to one. If he made his four-foot par putt, he’d have his first pro win. If he missed, a humiliating playoff awaited. “I was shaking. My knees were wobbling,” McIlroy says. “I told myself, ‘This is not to win anything. It’s just a par putt.’ “

Victory had looked like a desert breeze just 90 minutes earlier. Amid a stretch of five straight birdies, an outmatched Justin Rose told McIlroy, “I believe that’s called turning the screw.” But McIlroy made three bogeys down the stretch. “[Over the putt on 18], I thought, ‘If you let this get away, you’ll look so stupid. I made it, and dad came out and, errr, the kiss.” He rolls his eyes, recalling the lip-lock Gerry planted on him. “It was quite embarrassing. I was like, ‘Dad, not here!’ He laughs. “But hey, so what? If he’s gonna pick a moment, that’s a good one. I felt as much relief as joy. There’s a weight to a six-shot lead, no question.”

And there’s a weight to great expectations. McIlroy has potential, but potential is everything you haven’t achieved. At 19, it brings mansions. At 29, it brings heartache. Ask Sergio. “I don’t feel overwhelmed,” McIlroy says. “I’m doing what I love. I don’t think about pressure. Why should I? I like the attention, the pizzazz. I play better when people are watching me. [Dubai] taught me that I have to earn it. Perhaps it’s come too easy. I have to be patient. I always want it today. I need to remember, I have time. I have years.”

Golfers are superstitious. Jack Nicklaus kept exactly three coins in his pocket. When Paul Azinger marked his ball with his lucky penny, he made certain Honest Abe’s eyes faced the hole. McIlroy’s iconic mane, he himself admits, “is a bit of a lucky charm.” He hasn’t had a real cut since September.

“Everyone talks about the hair,” Gerry says. When Rory gets it wet, Dad gleefully mentions, those tangled locks fall into long tendrils. A few months back, Gerry was driving a freshly-showered Rory to the airport. Dad kept staring.

“What are you looking at?” Rory asked.

“Your hair,” Gerry said.


“Because you look like Shirley Temple.”

Rory, days removed from his 20th birthday, asked his old man, “Who the hell is Shirley Temple?”

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