Charities count the cash after Rory McIlroy's goodwill drive
We know him as 'Wee Mac', the mercurial golf prodigy from Holywood who dominates putting greens around the world. But this week Rory McIlroy had other green stuff on his mind - raising thousands of dollars in New York for the children's charity that's close to his heart. Ivan Little reports.
Listening to the deafening silence and watching sheep grazing in the fields amid the majestic sweep of the Mourne mountains, it's hard to imagine a starker contrast between the rural idyll and the hustling, bustling mayhem of Manhattan.
But thousands of miles - and a world - away in New York City, the thoughts of Rory McIlroy have been concentrated this week on Newcastle and the charity project that he's dedicated himself to helping: the Daisy Lodge cancer centre on the edge of Tollymore Forest.
Without fanfare, or fuss, the world's Number 1 golfer has been holding private meetings with influential Americans in a bid to persuade them to back the work of his Rory Foundation - which he set up last year to assist children's charities around the world - as well as hosting two gala fundraising dinners in Manhattan.
"I'd love to make an impact on kids' lives," said Rory. And Daisy Lodge is the main project which is close to his Co Down home and to his heart.
The 25-year-old Holywood sporting superstar has already donated more than £1m to the centre, which is an oasis of calm and retreat for families and children who have been diagnosed with cancer, or have lost a family member.
In October, Rory officially opened Daisy Lodge - less than a year after he paid a surprise Christmas Eve visit to see the building work in progress at the £3m centre, which has replaced an old short-break facility at Shimna Valley.
Officials from the Northern Ireland Cancer Fund for Children (NICFC) were expecting him to pay a flying visit, but he stayed for hours.
Staff said that, when he returned for the opening 10 months later, he remembered the names of all the youngsters he'd met before and what they'd been coping with.
"We still have to pinch ourselves that we have one of the world's top sportsmen as a benefactor," says Patricia Kidd, who manages the NICFC complex near Bryansford.
"We know we are so lucky to have him onboard. And for his Foundation to give us £1m was quite astonishing.
"But it's more than that. He really does care about the children and the work that we do here. He is a wonderful guy and a wonderful ambassador for our charity. The children really loved him during his visits. He had so much time for them."
But the £1m donation wasn't the end of Rory's largesse. His Foundation is hosting next year's Irish Open at Royal County Down, just a mile and a half from Daisy Lodge.
And Rory is planning to recruit a little help from his golfing friends to not only raise more money for the charity - probably at a gala dinner - but also to spread the word about what they do.
And it's a safe bet that the Lodge may have a few high-profile visitors during the Open week.
Another Holywood man is the full-time CEO of Rory's Foundation. Businessman Barry Funston said McIlroy's motivation for establishing his charity was his desire to ensure that youngsters in need got the best support possible.
Speaking from New York, Barry told me that part of what drove Rory on was his gratitude for the sacrifices that his parents, Gerry and Rosie, had made for him as they took on a number of jobs to fund his golfing dreams.
Barry, who has been a family friend of the McIlroys for years, said Rory's Foundation was very much in its infancy and was set up because the golfer wanted to give something back to society.
Barry is on record as saying that the Rory McIlroy of today is little different from the Rory McIlroy of his early years and that he doesn't look at him as a golfing megastar.
Rory has, of course, had to weather several storms in recent months over his break-up with his fiancee, the tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, and he has also been involved in a multi-million legal battle with his former management company - not to mention the controversy over his decision to opt for Ireland in the Olympics.
Certain sections of the media - particularly in America - have also had Rory in their sights. One article, in the New York Times, was particularly nasty, saying that people here regarded him "as a spoilt brat", who was from a "leafy loyalist suburb".
The reality, however, doesn't tally with the New York Times' assertions. Rory is still hugely popular in Northern Ireland - as witnessed by the euphoric response across the province to his recent Open victories and the viewing figures for a recent BBC documentary about him and Ulster's other golfing giants, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke.
And people who know him scoff at any suggestion that his charity work is a PR exercise designed to draw attention away from his off-course difficulties, and they cite as proof the fact that many of his efforts to date have gone under the radar.
Friends said his commitment to the Foundation was unwavering. And while other sportsmen pay only lip service to their charitable causes, Rory is hands-on and carries out his duties with a meticulous eye to detail with him insisting that he has the final say on everything.
Rory's aspirations for his Foundation aren't limited to his own backyard. People who know him said he was deeply affected by what he saw as a Unicef ambassador during a humanitarian visit to Haiti three years ago after the devastating earthquake.
And, as a sportsman with one of the most famous faces on the planet, it's his ambition to capitalise on his celebrity to aid charities all over the world, to make a difference - hence this week's money-spinning charity fundraisers in New York.
The global outreach of the Foundation will come in time. But, in the meantime, his first priorities have been to get his organisation set up with all the proper governance that is required in the complex legislative world of charitable groups and to provide assistance to needy causes in Northern Ireland.
"He's very proud of where he comes from and he wants to help people here," says Barry Funston. "He mightn't get home as often as he would like, but he wanted to put down roots, to stay connected and that's why the Foundation was founded in Northern Ireland with a base in Holywood."
Other causes which have benefited, quietly, so far are a children's autism charity and the Belfast Youth Orchestra who are in line to receive the backing of the Foundation as they plan a tour to Boston.
But the spin-offs from the Rory factor go deeper for charities than just a cheque. For having Rory's support can also give a charity the sort of exposure in the public eye that they could only have dreamt about in the past.
They know all about that at Daisy Lodge, where Rory's generosity has not only helped the NICFC to provide a wide range of services to children and their families, but also to become known worldwide. At a number of tournaments, Rory had the fund's logo emblazoned on his golf bag and he also met one seven-year-old Belfast boy, James Bannatyne, in Abu Dhabi last year, presenting him with gifts and making him feel extra-special.
James' mother Aundrea said on a YouTube video: "We were treated like royalty. James was diagnosed with cancer of the brain at the age of two.
"He's had five major brain surgeries. He's had 10 courses of chemotherapy and 25 blasts of radiotherapy. So he's been through a lot in his short life.
"Having Rory creating awareness of the charity and childhood cancer is just phenomenal."
No one at the NICFC would disagree. Phil Alexander, who is therapeutic services manager, showed me around Daisy Lodge and the nearby Narnia Log Cabin, which are part of what is still called the Shimna Valley complex.
"We have diagnosed children who come here and their whole family can join them for a break to give them all time out from the medical treatment and stresses of everyday life," says Phil.
"We have specialist support teams here who will listen, talk and signpost them to other services."
Daisy Lodge also has a wide range of facilities, including a cinema, a sauna, games rooms, gym, hair salon and treatment rooms where complementary therapists are on hand.
The families stay for maybe three or four breaks a year in 12 stylish and comfortable suites which would put many a top-class hotel in the shade and which have breathtaking views across the Mournes.
But, as Phil says: "These families don't choose this journey. Cancer is one of the most difficult things that anyone will ever face and we in the NICFC are here from the point of diagnosis right through, with community teams outside to offer their support."
A number of families from the Republic are now availing of the Daisy Lodge breaks, too, with staff taking referrals from a hospital in Dublin as well as from other hospitals in Northern Ireland, primarily the Royal Victoria and the City in Belfast.
Nearby, the Narnia Log Cabin which overlooks the very mountains that inspired CS Lewis to write his famous books has 24 beds for weekend residential breaks for young people who have cancer, or who have been bereaved.
Phil and the rest of the staff at the centre can't speak highly enough of what Rory McIlroy's donations have enabled them to do for hundreds of people affected by cancer.
Patricia Kidd, the Shimna Valley complex manager, who is retiring soon, said it took upwards of £750,000 a year to run the centre and added that the work was uplifting and heartbreaking at times.
"I have shared laughter and tears with the families here, sitting up to three in the morning sometimes, listening to their tales of sadness. And only last week we heard that we had lost a little boy who was here. So it can be tough."
Angela Rodgers, who is the services manager for the NICFC based in Belfast, said their work went well beyond Newcastle, with specialist teams working with families of cancer victims around Northern Ireland to help them to cope with the illness and bereavement.
The charity have an overall staff in the province of 46 including a hospitality team at Daisy Lodge who cook for the families who stay there.
A financial unit pays non-means-tested grants for the likes of heating and travel to the families and there are also fundraising staff whose work didn't stop after Rory McIlroy made his £1m contribution to Daisy Lodge.
Even after the briefest of meetings with the staff in Newcastle, it's clear that their work is more than a job and most of them have long associations with the place.
Joan Burton, who is the hospitality manager at Daisy Lodge, has been with the NICFC for 17 years. "It's a lovely environment here and you get great job satisfaction when you see the benefits that families get from their breaks," she says.
Angela Rodgers adds: "Helping so many families at times of great distress and difficulty and knowing you are trying to do something positive for them is something that you get addicted to."
Just ask Rory McIlroy.
Hugely successful 12 months for 25-year-old with a real passion to win
Rory McIlroy capped the best season of his career after winning last month's £800,000 Race to Dubai and notching up total 2014 earnings of £6m.
The 25-year-old Holywood man added the European Tour's Race to Dubai title to his two major victories this year - in spite of only taking part in one of the Final Series.
McIlroy enjoyed a hugely successful year, winning the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool and the PGA Championship at Valhalla.
He also won the World Golf Championship event at Firestone and the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.
Having earned £5.2m this year already, McIlroy, who sat out the Turkish Airlines Open, knew the money-list crown - and an extra £800,000 - would be his, providing Spain's Sergio Garcia, German Marcel Siem and Jamie Donaldson of Wales failed to win.
All three had needed to win in Turkey and the DP World Tour Championship to have a chance of overtaking McIlroy on the money list.
Speaking after Brooks Koepka's surprise victory in Turkey, McIlroy, who won the Race to Dubai in 2012, said: "To win the Race to Dubai for the second time really is something truly special.
"That four-week spell over the summer, from The Open to the US PGA Championship, would have to be the best golf of my life, so I feel like I've really earned the Race to Dubai.
"Winning it for the first time two years ago was a fantastic feeling, but I feel like I'm now a more complete player and my all-round game has moved to another level.
"I've put in a lot of hard work this season, with my game and my fitness, so it's nice to get the rewards at the end of it."