Rory McIlroy hails from Holywood, not Hollywood, and that distinction, so minor in the spelling, has had a major impact on the person he’s become. In his hometown, a modest, seaside suburb just northeast of Belfast, locals shrug at stardom and shrink from big-shot gestures. Which is why, a year ago, when McIlroy rolled through town in a new Ferrari, a longtime family friend was quick to dress him down.
“I said to him, ‘Is that little Rory McIlroy?’ ” says Nuala MacManus, who first met the future golfer when he was in diapers. “ ‘Why Rory,’ I said, ‘I hardly know you in that thing.’ ”
McIlroy blushed. In a world that affords him celebrity treatment, he has Holywood to keep him real.
When McIlroy comes home, he’s greeted by those who know him as the same old Rory, and he’s surrounded by reminders of his humble past. A scruffy stucco home, sized for hobbits, still stands on Church View Street. It’s where his parents lived when Rory was born. Later, they upgraded to a squat brick house just a few blocks over, and built an artificial putting green in front.
Rory’s parents, Gerry and Rose, were pure blue-collar, juggling jobs to support an only child who showed prodigious talent as soon as he could walk. In those early years he would toddle around Holywood Golf Club, the quirky hillside layout where his father played, flailing at the grass with a plastic club.
“We’d say, ‘Rory, show us your Faldo,’ ” says former club president Wilbur Walker. “And he’d do a perfect imitation of Nick Faldo. That beautiful flowing swing you see today, it’s incredible. It’s pretty much the same one he’s always had.”
Even better than his golf was his behavior. Once, as a young boy, while batting around a plastic golf ball, he accidentally nailed the club bartender between the eyes. Rory reddened.
“He was the most polite little lad,” says Pat McCoy, the lady’s club president. “His father always said, ‘If he gives you any cheek, you let us know.’ And you know what? Rory never did.”
At age 15, he won the Holywood club championship, beating five-time winner Tony McClements by a shot with an 18-footer at 18. “He knew how good he was,” McClements says, “but he was too modest as a lad to ever tell you as much.”
McIlroy’s game has since outgrown his home course (“Last time he was here,” says general manager Paul Gray, “he drove the first three greens”), but he hasn’t forgotten where it all began. He hosts a charity event to benefit Holywood’s junior golfers. He shelled out $8,000 to build a new practice chipping area.
During this year’s Masters, as McIlroy imploded, all of Holywood transformed into a morgue. At his home course, the packed clubhouse fell silent. Ditto the bar at the Dirty Duck, one of Rory’s favorite haunts. “I just felt ill,” Wilbur Walker recalls.
Then came the U.S. Open. The entire town erupted. Posters with Rory’s picture appeared in storefront windows. At the Dirty Duck, barman Nelson Green unfurled a banner: “We gave them their independence, but we held onto their Open.”
Within days of his win, McIlroy was back, strolling his hometown streets with the locals. Garry Jackson, a barber who buzzed Rory’s hair when he was a boy, bumped into him on High Street.
“I said, ‘Now are you going to drop by and sort out your hair?’”
McIlroy laughed. Rory’s ’do was different, but otherwise, Jackson says, “he was just the same.”
Later that week, at the plush home he moved his parents into (when McIIroy started making money, he swore his mom and dad would never have to work again), a party was thrown in McIlroy’s honor, and the house filled with family and old friends.
A security team stood watch out front, the better to stave off paparazzi. In a quiet moment, Walker approached the young star.
“Life is going to be different for you now that you’ve won the Open,” Walker said. “You know that, don’t you, Rory?”
Glasses clinked and conversation swelled around them.
“I know that,” McIlroy replied. “But that doesn’t mean I have to change.”