Teen golf star Tom McKibbin: 'I'm happy to have chance to help Children's Hospice'
He won his first golfing tournament aged just nine and Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell are already massive fans. Stephanie Bell meets Tom McKibbin.
He is tipped to be the next Rory McIlroy - and teenage golf sensation Tom McKibbin is proving that it's not just on the fairways that he is following in his famous mentor's footsteps. But already he is giving back to the community.
Fourteen-year-old Tom, from Newtownabbey, is flying the flag for the Northern Ireland Children's Hospice in his new role as ambassador and has also been busy raising funds ... between golf practice and studying for his GCSEs.
Children's Hospice Week runs until Sunday and, to mark it, Tom will present the charity with a cheque for £2,500, which he raised through an online auction - with a little help from his new celebrity pals.
One of the world's rising talents in golf, Tom has taken the junior golfing world by storm since he first picked up a club at the age of eight.
A natural, just like his idol Rory, within a year he entered his first competition in Dublin - and won it. Since then, he has gone on to conquer the world, winning the World Junior Championships in 2015, aged 12, a tournament which McIlroy won when he was nine.
Last year, he again made headlines when he won his age-group category at the prestigious Junior Honda Classic tournament in Florida, prompting Rory - who won the main Honda Classic in 2012 - to tweet: "Well done, Tom. Great to see all your hard work paying off."
He has already started this season on a high, winning his first two tournaments - the Munster Under-16 Amateur Championships and the Ulster Under-16 Amateur Championships.
He has his sights now set on finishing first at the European Championships in Scotland next week.
A modest and unassuming teen, his talent has brought him to the attention of the game's greatest players, with Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell both inviting him to play with them.
Tom was the envy of his friends when he joined McIlroy on the fairways in Florida last year and again at the Irish Open at the K Club.
McIlroy said of the young talent at the time: "I played a round with Tom in Florida recently and he is the real deal. At only 13 years of age, I think he has a remarkable golfing future ahead of him. Having seen him play a couple of times now, he impresses me more each time."
Tom is the only child of proud parents Sara (46), a housewife and full-time mum, and Robin (47), who runs his own custom golf club fitting business, The Club House, at Greenacres Golf Club in Ballyrobert.
Like McIlroy's parents, they are now working hard and making sacrifices to fund their son's ambitions.
A pupil of Belfast Royal Academy, Tom was keen to promote the Children's Hospice when we caught up with him this week and, true to his reputation, was playing down his immense golfing talent.
He says: "I was really happy that the Children's Hospice asked me to be their ambassador last year. It was an honour to be asked and I am very proud to be ambassador.
"The Children's Hospice brings it home that some people's lives aren't as fantastic as mine and I am happy to be given the chance to help.
"If I can help create awareness during Hospice Week, that is great."
Rory and One Direction's Niall Horan were among a number of celebrities who donated items for an online auction, organised by Tom to raise funds for the Hospice.
It is only a few years since Tom first picked up a club, when a friend's dad brought him to the driving range.
That first experience had him hooked and, ever since, most of his spare time has been devoted to practising and playing at Holywood Golf Club - made famous by McIlroy.
He says: "I was at my friend's when his dad suggested taking us to the driving range. I had never played golf before and I loved it.
"After that, I started going to the driving range every month and then started to get really into it and entered my first competition when I was nine.
"From then on, I have been playing club competitions and entering tournaments. I usually do my school work first and then golf and, in the winter, it is mainly the driving range, but in the summer I will usually get out playing five days a week."
Of his big wins at the Honda Classic and World Championships, he simply says: "I played really well and somehow ended up winning."
When he is not playing golf, he is watching it on TV and following McIlroy, whose success he hopes to one day emulate.
"Rory is a natural person to look up to. I follow him on TV all the time. He has been really good to me. Playing with him last year in America and at the Pro Am was amazing.
"He is really nice and an inspiration. It was very special and I definitely think my friends were well jealous.
"I am looking forward to the European Championships in Scotland.
"Two years ago, I came seventh and I'm hoping to win this year and then I have the Future Masters in Alabama.
"I feel really lucky. My parents have worked really hard to help me and they take it in turns to come to the tournaments with me.
"I just want to keep playing golf and it is my dream to do the PGA Tour and try to win lots of tournaments."
Making sacrifices to help their son realise his dream and nurture his talent is something which mum Sara says she and husband Robin are delighted to do.
The couple are immensely proud of Tom and his achievements, but ultimately, like any parent, Sara says they just want their child to be happy.
"As parents, you want your kids to grow up happy and healthy and have good life experiences and Tom is totally living the dream.
"He has put a lot of hard work into it and he really loves it.
"He has always been quite athletic and played rugby and football and did cross-country running at school and was always competitive. With golf, he started playing competitively very quickly.
"When he entered his first tournament at nine in Dublin and won, that was the start of it and it has just grown from there."
Golf is an expensive sport - even at junior level - and the couple have put all they can into allowing their son to compete in the biggest tournaments in the world.
They are grateful that this year Tom has received some financial support from his local council in Newtownabbey and the Mary Peters Trust.
Sara says: "It is really expensive and it is hard to get sponsorship at a young age. We've just had to give up family holidays and there are no trips to the beach, or days out, anymore.
"We take it in turns travelling with him to the tournaments. It is his dream and life is too short; you have to live your dream."
Sara says she is immensely grateful to world superstars McIlroy and McDowell for taking an interest in her son and making time in their busy schedules to mentor him.
"Rory is very grounded, he is an amazing guy and very good to take time to invite Tom to play golf with him and take an interest in him," she said.
"Playing with Rory in Florida and then at the Pro Am was the best few months of his life. It was quite awesome for Rory to do that and it just shows the type of person he is.
"Graeme McDowell also met Tom in the US and invited him to play golf with him. Graeme has been fantastic and Tom really is very lucky to be surrounded by lots of our great golfers."
Her son's invitation to be an ambassador for the Children's Hospice was something Sara says they discussed at length as a family and she is pleased at how much Tom has embraced the role.
"Being so young, we were concerned at first just how it would sit with him and we sat him down and explained about the Hospice and he was absolutely onboard straight away.
"He doesn't see himself as having any profile, but is just a kid who plays golf and he wasn't sure why they asked him.
"We used to pass the Hospice on his way to primary school every day and he would ask me what it was and I would tell him a little bit about it in the easiest way possible.
"He really wanted to jump into the role and he organised the auction and got great support and has done really well to raise so much money."
Being tipped as one of the next generation of world-class golfers, Tom is already one young talent that is being watched.
For his parents, though, it is more about ensuring his happiness than the fame or celebrity that his talent might bring.
His mum adds: "We just want him to be happy and I would love him to be able to do a job that he loves and if that is what it is, then I will be really happy for him."
Vital work of Hospice relies on donations
The Northern Ireland Hospice is the only provider of dedicated children's palliative care services here, offering end-of-life care and respite care to babies, children and young people, both in the community and in hospice.
Each year, the Hospice cares for in the region of 300-350 families. In 2015/16, 320 families were supported by the charity.
Annual running costs exceed £3m, with less than 30% of this met by statutory funding The remaining costs are met by voluntary sources.