As a study in balance of trade, it’s pathetically uneven. The Emerald Isle gets one planeload after another of vacationing American duffers losing $4 golf balls in the dunes of Ballybunion in the south, overpaying caddies at Royal County Down in the north and bellying up at Fodor’s-approved pubs each night to joyfully relive their windblown misery.
Then the other side of the ledger: Irish golfers coming to the U.S., prospecting for American gold. David Feherty, born in Bangor, in Northern Ireland, growing prosperous off the generous teat of CBS Sports, a satirist (except while on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National) masquerading as a golf commentator, retreating between tournaments to his big Dallas life and his gorgeous American family. Padraig Harrington of Dublin, having already built a vacation home for his family in the mountains of North Carolina, now trying to win his third consecutive major with clubs manufactured by Wilson (Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago!). And, to complete this trinity of Irish golfers, the boy wonder himself, Rory McIlroy, from Holywood, 20 minutes by commuter train from downtown Belfast, about to play his first Masters.
He’s 19, with a young face and an old head, and his Masters debut comes in the middle of a three-week stretch: Houston, Augusta, Hilton Head. He could make more in three weeks than a dozen union welders in the dying Belfast shipyards will earn in their lifetimes combined. Easily. What a country.
“Ah-mare-EE-ka,” McIlroy says, in the Gaelic singsong that makes Irish English so easy on the ear. His brogue is muted by his worldliness — you hear the lilt much more in his parents — but still it’s there. He never refers to the United States or the U.S. or the States. It’s always America, a name from a dream in which you could ladle water straight from the river and drink it. Opposites, as ever, attract: America is as young as McIlroy’s isle is old, as sprawling as his island is narrow, as open to reinvention as Ireland, Northern and otherwise, is bound by tradition.
The kid — almost freakishly mature, but still a kid — sees nothing but birdie holes and opportunity. It’s good to be 19, ubertalented, brimming with life and so damn nice you can hardly believe it. He cheerfully answers questions on his website and signs off with a variety of valedictions. Cheers. Good luck. All the best. Regards. Kind regards. To the Irish, like the Japanese, the small gesture still matters. Kind regards? Do you know a single American teenager who would end an e-mail with those words? OMG, nfw.
Here’s the shortest possible version of Rory McIlroy’s golfing life: He made the cut in the 2007 British Open as an 18-year-old amateur; he won a European tour event in Dubai in February as a 19-year-old professional; he came to America for his PGA Tour baptism. His first stop, on a gleaming Southern California morning in February, was for a tune-up at the ultrasecure Titleist Performance Institute in Carlsbad, about eight miles off I-5 in San Diego County and a million miles from the gray Belfast winter. Two or three company men monitored McIlroy as he experimented with different balls and grinds and lofts and shafts.
He hit one ball after another, never taking a divot, with about the most dynamic swing you could imagine, a flurry of moving parts that, you have to say it, brings to mind Ben Hogan. The flat, handsy money-game action. The ramrod-straight left arm. The explosive rotation of the hips.
A computer model of his swing at the Titleist facility — in which his body appeared as a stick-figure X-ray, his joints marked with lighted dots — revealed something that astonished the company’s swing doctors. At the start of McIlroy’s downswing, his left hip spins violently counterclockwise, as it does for every elite, long-hitting player. But then, and only with the driver, McIlroy makes a funky move you could not teach. A moment before impact his left hip suddenly changes direction and jerks back, clockwise, and then rotates again, this time even more powerfully than the first. It’s like some mad fusion golf experiment, and McIlroy, wise man, pays it little mind. But that extra thrust explains why McIlroy — 5′ 11″ in cleats and 160 pounds — is one of the longest hitters in the game.
Lunch at the TPI came out of paper bags, and Rory drank Mountain Dew from a can. (He is prone to fainting, and the sugar in the drink is like preventive medicine for him.) His father, Gerry, sat near Stuart Cage, a former European tour player who now works for ISM Sports, the English agency that represents McIlroy. Rory’s caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald of Dublin, who has worked for Ernie Els and Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley, was at the table, along with some Titleist people.
The midday conversation raced. Premier League football. Rugby in its various forms. Cycling between bites of tacos. Slumdog Millionaire, which Rory, a movie buff, had not yet seen. The Mumbai slums depicted in the movie, those Rory has seen. Golf has already taken him all over the world.
Then, after lunch, a word game of sorts: Stump Rory. He’s an expert on Tiger Woods. You cite a moment in Tiger’s career, and McIlroy will provide you with the details, chapter and verse. It’s not simply the broad strokes that McIlroy knows, like Tiger’s going out in 40 on Thursday at the ’97 Masters and then winning by 12. That’s child’s play for him. Rory can give you the blow-by-blow of the key shots Tiger played to come back from five down in the ’96 U.S. Amateur against Steve Scott and much, much more. It’s like a carnival act, really.
At the end of a long day, Rory and his father were on the range together. Gerry has a long rhythmic swing and was once a good player in Belfast’s amateur golf leagues. He was fiddling around with a bag of shiny new toys given to him by the TPI people. “What are you playing?” Rory asked his father between swings. They were hitting pitch shots into a nearby green, turning practice into play. (Rory is not one to beat balls.) Gerry was executing skillful bump-and-run shots, but Rory was flying his ball to the target and beating his father, shot after shot.
“Titleist,” the father said.
“Yeah?” the son asked rhetorically. “I wouldn’t think you’d be playing TaylorMade.”
Rory was looking for details: model names, shaft flexes, swing weights and dead weights, lofts and lies. The father grew up playing on feel alone, but the son is different. He’s a hybrid, with one foot in wet-wool Irish golf and the other in the shiny new world, where bad numbers off a launch monitor can keep a golfer up all night.
The next day, by private jet, Team McIlroy left for Tucson.
A whole collection of big mikes and big pens — NBC Sports, USA Today, The New York Times, ESPN in its various “platforms” — had gathered in the Arizona desert to witness Tiger’s return to competitive golf at the Accenture Match Play Championship. If McIlroy and Tiger could win their first two matches, they’d play each other in the third round. McIlroy was looking forward to that possibility.
McIlroy won his first match, over his friend Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa. Nobody paid any attention. He won his second match, against a star from last year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, Hunter Mahan, 1 up with birdies on the last two holes. It was duly noted. Then in the third round he dismantled Tim Clark, the player who had sent Woods home in the second round. Suddenly reporters were looking at the record book to see if McIlroy could become the youngest winner in PGA Tour history. (He could.)
In the quarterfinals McIlroy played Geoff Ogilvy, the Australian who won the 2006 U.S. Open and that year’s Match Play and who is one of the best players in the game. Golf Channel had hours to fill and two appealing players to do it with, even if they weren’t Americans. It was a Saturday in winter. People were home. The tent doors were open, and people were piling in.
Ogilvy had heard all about the boy wonder. He had seen him make swings on TV. He knew about the win in Dubai. But now he was going head-to-head with him. It took Ogilvy all of one hole to realize something: If he was going to win, he’d really need to golf his ball.
As their match wore on, Ogilvy quickly discovered what makes McIlroy special. It wasn’t only the massive length his little body produced. It wasn’t simply that he shaped every shot, which is unheard of among young players. It wasn’t just the boldness and assuredness and speed of his play. “It was really how he carried himself,” said Ogilvy, who held off McIlroy 2 and 1, with five back-nine birdies. Ogilvy was impressed with McIlroy’s walk, the boyish bounce in his step, the rounded, slightly rocking shoulders that hint of swagger. What the kid exudes, Ogilvy realized, is charisma. Golfing charisma will show up on no stat sheet, of course, but it’s pure gravy. It will get you fans and contracts. It will intimidate your opponents. It will help you win.
The McIlroy PGA Tour debut party rolled east, to South Florida for the Honda Classic. One day Rory and his father went to a mall in Palm Beach Gardens. They were in a tournament courtesy car. A retired golfer who lives in the area recognized them and approached the car.
“Hi,” the man said to Rory. “I thought that was you. I’m Jack Nicklaus.”
“Hello, Mr. Nicklaus,” the kid said.
“Hi, Jack!” said the father.
When Nicklaus made it back to his house, he said to his wife, Barbara, “You won’t believe who I ran into at the mall today.”
When Rory and his father were back in the car, Rory said, “You don’t call him Jack — he’s Mr. Nicklaus.”
Gerry shrugged it off. He has known the great man all his life, through the telly. He felt right at home calling him Jack. He told the story to his wife, Rosie, who had flown in from Belfast.
Like Earl and Tida Woods, Gerry and Rosie have only one child, and they have devoted themselves to his golf. Rosie, though on an injury leave now, works a midnight-to-8 a.m. shift at the 3M plant in Belfast, putting rolls of tape into boxes and stacking them. For eight years Gerry worked three jobs, including tending bar and cleaning at a rugby club. (Now he is the food-and-beverage manager at a golf club on the outskirts of Belfast.) For most of Rory’s boyhood his parents were ships passing in the night, and one day Rory asked, “Why are we not like a normal family?” The answer was because the parents saw what golf meant to their son, and because they saw his potential.
“At the end of the day I didn’t want to say, ‘Why didn’t you put more effort into Rory?’ ” Gerry said one afternoon at the Honda. He and Rosie were on an outdoor patio at the tournament hotel. The weather was warm. People were milling about.
In raising Rory, Rosie and Gerry made a break from the Northern Ireland of their own youth, when class and religion and accent and family history predicted your life with ruthless accuracy. They raised their only child to be independent. “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 says. “I cried for days.” When the parents reunited with their son at a junior event in San Diego eight weeks later, he had bleached his hair white and was speaking with an American accent. What could they do? He was doing what they wanted. He was doing his own thing.
Wherever he has gone, Rory has always made friends. “I told him at a young age,” the father said at the Honda, “it’s nice to be nice, and it doesn’t cost you a penny.” Shortly after meeting the McIlroys in the mall parking lot, a charmed Nicklaus invited Rory to use the secluded practice area at his private Bear’s Club, and Rory spent parts of several days there, playing closest-to-the-pin games with Clarke and Luke Donald and others, having a good time. Back at the hotel, the parents were having a good time too.
Rory tied for 13th and earned $90,000 at the Honda. Someone said to Gerry, “Well, he made more than he spent this week.” To which the father, life of the party, said, “Not when he gets my bill!”
The pro plays golf for money. Fans sometimes forget that, but no pro ever does, not Tiger Woods, not Ben Crenshaw, not Rory McIlroy. It’s a big part of the allure. Rory likes fine watches and expensive cars. (He gave his father a Breitling that Gerry traded for a Rolex and presented his parents with a silver Mercedes as a Christmas gift in 2007, three months into his pro career.) As a boy he was once turning the pages of a magazine when he came upon a photo of a palatial house and said, “Mommy, someday I want to live in that house.” Andrew (Chubby) Chandler, a former European tour player and the founder of ISM Sports, was impressed when McIlroy took a chunk of his various signing bonuses and put a down payment on a house in Holywood. Chandler had arrived at Doral, and Stuart Cage went home, a changing of the guard. “He told me, ‘I want to get on the ladder.’ ” The ladder is a British real estate term: You buy a starter home, you sell it and buy a bigger home and onward and upward you go. Someday, if you make enough putts, you’re an Irish golfer building a vacation home in the mountains of North Carolina.
On the course, following his son’s every shot, Gerry McIlroy can get tense, despite his best efforts to mask his nervousness. He’s lustily competitive, and his son is too. They just don’t advertise it. On Sunday at the CA Championship at Doral, payday, Rory’s game was flat and dull, and father and son were both suffering. “He’s tired,” Gerry said. “It’ll be good to get home.”
There’s an element of assault, if you’re a public figure in America. Over three weeks McIlory went from unknown to known. Over that time, all of it in glorious sunshine — Mother, it’s the most amazing thing: It never rains in America, yet still the crops grow! — McIlroy had signed hundreds of autographs and posed for scores of pictures, shook hands everywhere he went, talked to reporters after every round and kept up his natural good cheer all the while. It’s a process of self-selection, really: The golfers who want that kind of attention, and who thrive on it, are generally the ones who get it. They may respond to it differently. (Look at how Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh are used in TV spots. Phil is always surrounded by people; Vijay is often by himself.) But the fact is, they want it. Watching McIlroy play for three weeks, listening to him answer questions from reporters and TV interviewers, seeing him respond to fans and interacting with other pros, you could only conclude that he wants it. He never hesitates. He’s always ready for whatever’s next. He’s 19.
McIlroy walked off the final green at Doral, signed for 73, good for a piece of 20th and another $80,000. In three weeks he had earned $440,365. His father was waiting for him as he emerged from the scorer’s room. All Gerry did was give his son a kind smile and a handshake. A group of kids and some adults were waiting on the opposite side of a white picket fence, calling his name in the flat tone of American English. Rory was once on the other side of the ropes, a freckly Irish boy trying to get Tiger to sign. Off he went, Sharpie in hand.
Rory has been the champ only once at Holywood Golf Club, which puts him in a tie with his father. It’s pronounced Hollywood, and more than anywhere else, it’s where Rory McIlroy — Rors, on the High Street in Holywood — grew up. Many Americans, conditioned to play a different and expensive game, a pampered activity called golf-in-a-cart, wouldn’t get Holywood GC. There’s a sign in the men’s locker room that reads as follows: the washing of golf shoes & clubs is strictly prohibited in the toilet wash hand basins and the showers. You see that all the time, right — guys bringing their sticks into the shower stall?
It’s a club for workingmen and their families, or kids who find their way to golf on their own. The greens are small (and therefore harder to hit and less expensive to maintain). The wind, off a body of water about two miles away called Belfast Lough, is often howling. (Wind is golf’s best and least expensive obstacle.) There’s no real rough, few trees, fewer level lies. (Rory feels Holywood has prepared him well for Augusta’s swoops and swales.) The 17th hole doubles as the driving range. The 16th green, and its bunkers, is where Rory first learned the short game, taught to him first by his father, then by the former club pro, Michael Bannon.
For an adult, it costs £350 to join Holywood, and the annual dues are £800. A child can join on his or her own for £50, and annual dues are £180. Once you pay the dues, there are no green fees. Youth lessons cost £2 a session, and there are more than a hundred kids in the club’s junior program. The course is wildly hilly, there are no motorized carts and play is generally completed in about three hours. The par-69 course is fun, and if you keep your ball inbounds, you’ll never lose it. The answers to some of golf’s problems are at Holywood, and it’s refreshing to learn that such a place produced one of the game’s most dynamic young players.
There’s a wall near the bar devoted to Rory’s golf, and there are four McIlroys on the club’s handicap rolls: Rory’s uncle Brian, who plays off 13; his uncle Colm, who plays off three; Gerry, who’s listed as a two; and Rory, who is a plus-five. When Rory is playing in a tournament, the bar and lounge are packed with adults and kids. Cable’s expensive, and so are flat-screen TVs. The club has both, and if you live in Holywood, your house most likely has neither. Besides, why would you want to watch the golf alone at home even if you could? Gerry, who used to run the bar at Holywood, comes by every day, and Rory is a regular too. He came in the other day and told Stephen Crooks, the club’s young professional, some of the highlights of his three weeks in America. “He talked about how he met Boo Weekley and how nice he was,” Crooks says. “How Boo Weekley was eating lunch in the clubhouse and called Rory over and told him to sit down and eat with him.”
Crooks succeeded Bannon, who moved up the road to Bangor Golf Club, where David Feherty discovered the game, and that’s where Rory goes now when he wants someone to look at his swing. Bannon is the only professional teacher Rory has had, but Bannon takes no credit for his rise. He says Gerry did a smart thing. He started Rory near the hole and thereby encouraged him to learn the game in the reverse of how it is played. In other words, Rory learned from hole to tee and not from driver to putter.
“I would never stand there and say, ‘Do this, do that,'” Bannon says. He was at Bangor on a nasty March day; still, he had pupils lined up to see him. “I’d give him a little something, he’d go away with it and make it his own,” he says. “His swing is him — it has personality. It has flair.”
Bannon is no Shivas Irons, no mystical golf teacher. He has hundreds of Rory’s swings recorded on computer files from over the years, and at the touch of a button he can bring up any of them and compare one to another. He can talk supination. “The swing is something you nudge along,” he says. Rory had been with Bannon earlier that day, making a few swings in a down vest and a ski cap. “There’s your swing,” the teacher says, “and then there’s your swing within your swing, waiting to come out.”
If Bannon has any real worry about Rory’s future as a professional, it’s regarding his pace of play. He plays quickly, and the glacial pace of tournament golf does not come naturally to him. At Augusta guys take a minute or two looking at three-footers, and longer at the ensuing 10-footer. Thursday and Friday rounds at the U.S. Open can drag on for close to six hours. Bannon plays quickly. Gerry plays quickly. Rory never struggled to keep up.
About the only thing he has ever done slowly is get up for school. The academically selective government school called Sullivan Upper is about a par-5 away from the modern redbrick McIlroy home, attached to the identical house next door. Yet every day his father had to drag him out of bed and get him in the car for the one-minute drive to Sullivan. Rory had no interest in school, even though he was an able student. He did well in the subjects he liked: geography, math, physical education. He took the SAT, toying with the idea of going to an American university, and scored 1,180 without any test prep.
But the classes in religious studies bored him, and he struggled in them. (The McIlroys are Catholic but not observant.) The school’s principal, John Stevenson, remembers Rory fondly, even though he encouraged Rory to finish his Year 12 — the U.S. equivalent of 10th grade — through, essentially, homeschooling. Rory stopped attending school shortly before his 16th birthday. “It was clear that golf was his path,” Stevenson said the other day. Outside his office, Sullivan’s hallways were filled with girls in pleated skirts and boys in black blazers and short, striped ties. “He was missing so much school as it was because of his tournaments. He was going to do the work to meet the requirements for graduation. We were working closely with the parents on all of this. He could always go back to school, but this was his time for golf.” When Rory got the news, he cheered. His girlfriend, Holly Sweeney, is in Year 14 at Sullivan now. She’ll likely go to university in the fall. When Rory was on the West Coast, he’d stay up late so he could call Holly before she left for school. They seem so young. Kids in Europe, Rory noted the other day, grow up way faster than kids in America.
Holywood gets its name from the monks who lived high on its hills ages ago. Above the golf course there are walking paths carved through a dense wood, where the monks used to roam and Rory and his buddies used to play mammoth games of hide-and-seek. From a clearing you can see Holywood and Belfast, and what you can’t see, you can imagine: The modest McIlroy home, with the practice putting green in the backyard and the silver Mercedes in the driveway. The mansions and estates below the A2, the Belfast-to-Bangor road. The lush greens of the Royal Belfast Golf Club. Rory has always had an idea about how the other half lives.
Late on a recent weekday afternoon a wicked March wind was whipping off Belfast Lough. The roar through the trees along the old monk paths was louder than anything I-5 in San Diego County can produce. And in the wind was an incongruous sound, the distinctive chimes of an ice-cream truck trying to round up the after-school crowd. Rory’s mother’s father drove an ice-cream truck. Rory’s father’s father worked in the Belfast shipyards, on Belfast Lough. Rory has never worked a day in his life, unless you count golf as work, and he doesn’t.
The course was empty, except for two boys huddled behind a tree, waiting for the wind to subside before they played in. They were two 14-year-olds, Sam Murray, in a winter hat, and Michael Eastwood. Their fingers were pink. They were junior members at Holywood, and they were very aware of everything Rory McIlroy had done on his maiden professional trip to America. They know him, not well, but they do. Professional riches, they both said, had not changed Rory at all. “I was in the lounge eating a hamburger,” Michael said. “About a third of it was left, and Rory said, ‘Are you done with that?’ And he ate me hamburger right off me plate.”