'Rory wants to give children the same opportunities he had in life thanks to the sacrifices his parents made'
Ahead of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, Ivan Little talks to Barry Funston, CEO of the Rory Foundation, the charity established by the tournament's defending champion Rory McIlroy to help disadvantaged and ill young people
The Irishwoman who wanted to thank Rory McIlroy during a chance encounter at a Caribbean golf tournament for his largesse towards a children's cancer charity - and one of her young relatives - back home could scarcely believe what he had to say to her.
For the Holywood golfer not only recognised the name of her niece but he was also able to tell her that he knew the girl was about to undergo a bone marrow transplant and wished her all the best.
The exchange, thousands of miles away from Ireland, is the perfect illustration that the millionaire sportsman isn't just a figurehead in the charity, the Rory Foundation, he set up four years ago to help give needy children a better chance in life.
Barry Funston, the foundation's CEO, is loath to discuss individual cases but he says that Rory really is hands-on and deeply immersed in the work of his charity who are hosting this week's Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in Portstewart.
Barry updates Rory regularly on the Foundation's work. And when he's home in Northern Ireland the 28-year-old golfer spends a lot of his time in the charity's office in Holywood which is precisely where he wanted it to be based.
Barry says: "He could have opened it anywhere in the world but it was important to Rory that it should be in his home town."
Rory set up his foundation in 2013 and after a necessarily cautious incubation period when issues like a constitution and a board of trustees were addressed, the real work started on the ground with the primary aim of helping children suffering from ill-health or who are unfairly disadvantaged or vulnerable.
Barry, who's 52 and who's also a Holywood man, has been a friend of the McIlroy family for a lifetime. "I've known Rory since he was born. And I was aware of him playing in golf tournaments as he was growing up but even though he's now a global superstar he really isn't all that different," he says.
Initially the former oil industry executive was only recruited to help the fledgling foundation get off the ground, working solely in an advisory capacity as a favour to his friend Rory.
"He had been engaged in charitable initiatives before," says Barry. "But at that stage he didn't have his own charity. However that all changed in 2013."
The catalyst for the establishment of the foundation had come at the start of that year when Rory signed an eye-watering, long-term, big-money endorsement deal with Nike.
Barry, who said Rory wanted "to give something back", agreed to research the best way of doing precisely that.
Barry had been employed by the DCC Energy group back then as their sales and marketing director in Northern Ireland with brands like Cawood's and Emo Oil under their umbrella.
However, it quickly became clear that the Rory Foundation needed someone to run the charity on a full-time basis.
And Barry, who was happy to take on the role, wasn't surprised that the foundation grew like Topsy.
He says: "I always knew that whatever direction Rory took, it was going to be huge. He brings a focus and drive to everything he does. I never had any doubt it was going to be quite a journey because I realised Rory would bring the same ambition and success from his sporting career to his charity."
The Irish Open has become one of the most important dates in the foundation's calendar and not just from a fund-raising perspective.
"We coined the phrase that the Open is our platform for positive change," says Barry. "And it's also our platform to deliver the message of what the foundation does, to tell Rory's story and to show what is achievable around the golfing tournament.
"The rest of the year we get on with doing what we do and helping the causes that we help."
The lion's share of the foundation's money comes from multi-million pound donations from Rory himself including all his winnings from the Irish Open which he scooped last year at the K Club.
And if he should emerge victorious at Portstewart - where the winner will pick up a cheque for around £877,000 - the same thing will happen again.
As for how the money goes out, the foundation doesn't throw it around without intensive research and thought. And Rory has the final say.
The foundation doesn't accept unsolicited requests for funding because they know they would be inundated with submissions.
"We go out and research opportunities which are aligned to Rory's strategic vision," says Barry. "And then the board of trustees draw up a shortlist which goes to Rory to make the ultimate decisions."
The mission statement of the foundation is to help children live better lives, according to Barry who says: "We have three pillars for change - health, community and research."
The most high profile charity to benefit from the foundation's funding has been the Cancer Fund for Children who operate at Daisy Lodge, a purpose-built therapeutic centre at the foot of the Mourne Mountains near Newcastle where young cancer sufferers and their families can have short breaks away from the stresses and strains of their treatment and hospital visits.
Rory has visited Daisy Lodge on a number of occasions, some public, some private and he's also been to the newly-opened Mencap centre at Newtownbreda which his foundation supported to the tune of £500,000.
It's expected that the foundation may soon expand their work to countries outside Northern Ireland and the Republic where they have now committed another €1.2million for a second Daisy Lodge in Connaught, coincidentally in Cong where Rory and his wife Erica were married amidst the strictest imaginable security to protect them from prying media eyes and lenses.
Barry is happier to talk about another marriage - that of the Open and its nominated good causes which include the Harry Gregg Foundation, named after the footballing legend, and a charity called Sport Changes Life who work in disadvantaged communities here to help young people find a brighter future with the assistance of international student/athletes on visits from America.
"The initiative really excited us because we could see how it was aligned to Rory's love of sport which can make such a difference to children's lives," says Barry, who is the only direct employee of the foundation though he can call not only on the expertise of his board of trustees but also the team of legal and financial experts who already work for Rory.
The Portstewart Open has an extra fund-raising event this year… in Belfast at the foundation's 'Evening with Rory' in the Waterfront Hall last night when actor and golfing enthusiast Jimmy Nesbitt interviewed his fellow Man United fan and his special guest Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City manager. Which led to some lively exchanges.
Barry reveals: "In the past there were a number of events associated with the Irish Open that weren't open to everyone but Rory wanted his fans to have the chance to come and see him and hear what he has to say. Last year Sir Alex Ferguson was Rory's guest at the K Club and the evening was a great success."
"The Waterfront sold out for last night's event and charities will benefit from the evening," adds Barry. The aims and efforts of the foundation were featured and rare clips of Rory were also screened during the talk show.
Barry, however, doesn't relish any time in the spotlight. "It's not about me," he insists. " It's about Rory and the foundation and it's about our charities.
"I would prefer it if people didn't know anything about me. I'm happier in the shadows but last year I was the mug who ended up hugging Rory on the 18th green at the K Club when he won the Irish Open."
Barry says the victory meant a lot to Rory, not just as a golfer but also as a charitable benefactor who was close to tears as he spoke about his win.
Barry adds: "The raw emotion of that moment was also the realisation that his foundation had come of age. It really, really matters to him. He does want to make a difference. And he honestly doesn't care if no one knows what he does for charity. That's not why he does it."
Barry says Rory genuinely wants to give children the same opportunities that he had in life thanks to the sacrifices of his parents Gerry and Rosie who worked long and hard to allow him to follow his dream as a golfer.
"But if Rory had decided in the end that he didn't want to play golf, Gerry and Rosie wouldn't have minded. All they cared about was giving him the platform to pursue that ambition and I think Rory has carried their philosophy with him through life - to give children a chance," says Barry, who adds that he's a useless golfer.
"There's an expression that people use - that you should rest from golf for six weeks and then give it up altogether. And that's what I've done."