Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Rory McIlroy: On course for mega-stardom

As he is about to turn professional, teenage golf sensation Rory McIlroy explains why rubbing shoulders with Tiger Woods holds no fears for him

There is a story about Rory McIlroy which has been doing the rounds of Holywood Golf Club for a number of years.

When the prodigy was around eight years old, he was halfway through putting together a more-than-respectable score when a few of the older members of the club stopped during a round to chat with him.

"How are you playing?" one asked.

"I'm having the round of my life!" said the youngster, demonstrating the sort of emotion familiar to those lucky few who achieve their goals.

What is remarkable about this little exchange today is that, although McIlroy (who turned 18 in May) does not recall it, it is a perfect summation of the youngster's boundless enthusiasm and sure-footed confidence.

"I have heard the story a number of times," he admitted. "I don't remember it."

However, the incident gave those elder high-handicappers of the seaside club an insight of what lay ahead.

McIlroy is a young man who loves his golf, knows how good he is at it but is at pains to say how important it is for him to take one step at a time. Confident, enthusiastic, grounded.

This weekend he will line up with the Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup team to take on the Americans at Royal County Down. It is the pinnacle of an amateur golfer's career. Within days, he will turn professional and take his first steps into the big, bad world of European tour golf. The thought of it doesn't frighten him at all.

And why should it? He has already won a host of events, including Irish and European Amateur titles, reached number one in the unpaid ranks and emerged top of the amateur pile at this year's British Open.

Today, McIlroy says that his little knock-about on Holywood's parkland fairways was not the "round of his life" to date.

Nor, surprisingly, was the bogey-free 68 (one ahead of Mr T Woods of Isleworth, Florida) he shot at Carnoustie which catapulted him to the business end of the leaderboard after day one of the British Open - three shots behind Sergio Garcia.

"The 68 at Carnoustie was good but it could have been so much better. And that's the way I look at it. I could have been leading after the first round."

The teenager did say "could" - but his tone of voice revealed he really meant "should".

And if he had, he would have led a field that included every big name in 21st century golf: Tiger, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Monty, Garcia, eventual champion Padraig Harrington and Rory's close friend Darren Clarke.

The knees of many experienced amateurs (never mind a teenage one) would have buckled at the names. Was he star struck?

"Nah. I've been meeting them since I was 16. Although this was the biggest tournament, I've met Tiger Woods before. He's a normal guy except he is good at golf. I've met Sergio Garcia before. I've got to know lots of players, which will help me when I'm out on tour."

Carnoustie was the moment McIlroy chose to announce his arrival on global stage.

But perhaps the moment, when the Irish golfing circle knew for certain it had a star its ranks was when he annexed Royal Portrush - one of the world's top ten courses and former Open venue - in 61 shots, breaking par by 11 and setting a new course record. He was just 16.

Not surprisingly he says: "Portrush was the best round I've ever played. "

After Carnoustie, big things are expected of him. In a society that loves its sporting heroes he could be the next Darren Clarke, Eddie Irvine or David Healy. Naturally though, he does not feel the weight of expectation.

"I don't think about it. I've got my expectations and that's enough for me. I'm happy enough for people to think of me like that. I try to take it in my stride and do the best I can."

From the age of three McIlroy has been hitting golf balls and says his earliest memory are of his dad (mentor and long-time caddy) Gerry, taking him to the golf club.

At age 15 he was taking home trophy after trophy - West of Ireland here, Irish Amateur there - and was punching well above his weight.

At this stage he knew what he wanted in life. And it wasn't Sullivan Upper School, which was obliged to take a back seat.

"When I was at school I was good. But I was rarely there so I was always trying to catch up. I'd say if my attendance had of been any better I would have been OK. I was always in the top five or ten. First three years I was OK. But last few years I wasn't there. My mum and dad and the school were always good about it."

In a few weeks, he will be making his way with the big boys. In doing so, he will follow in the footsteps of, among others, Justin Rose.

Nine years ago Rose was the 17-year-old who came fourth in the Open at Royal Birkdale and big things were forecast when he turned professional after he picked up his silver medal as leading amateur.

For the next six months, his weekly golf was limited to Thursdays and Fridays, as he missed 21 cuts on the trot in the white-hot glare of an expectant media. But even this horror story does not faze McIlroy.

"Look where he is now. (Top 20 in the world). I'm not thinking of Justin Rose. I look at my friend but I look at my friend Oliver Fisher who was on the last Walker Cup team. He's now on tour and has won a quarter of a million. We play each other and beat each other. If he can do it, so can I. But I am hoping if a miss a few putts or a few cuts, the media won't get on my back as hard as they did Justin."

The world's number 269 admits to nerves as he sets out on his new venture but is sure he will make it.

"It's going to be so different from being amateur, getting grants and being flown here and there for teams. You have to make your money yourself. I am going to live in Belfast.

"When I turn pro I'm going to buy somewhere to live. If I can get an apartment in town or something in Holywood, that would be just perfect. It's just as easy to get from Heathrow to Belfast."

If it weren't for his outrageous ability to hit a golf ball exactly where he wants, McIlroy would be no different from any other teenager. He has a steady girlfriend, enjoys pear cider, listens to 50 Cent on his ipod, likes tennis and supports Manchester United (the latter he chose because his father is a Manchester City fan).

But he, like the world at large, knows he is different.

His world could not look rosier. His style and flair, coupled with his undoubted ability, have some commentators saying that McIlroy's bank balance will swell into six figures in endorsements the moment he turns professional. He is mates with Darren Clarke and has Nick Faldo's number on his mobile phone. And he will be the star attraction in Newcastle this weekend.

Asked what he hopes he will have achieved by 2017, it is clear his expectations are high:

"I'll be 28. I'd like to think I'd have won at least a couple of majors and have played in four Ryder Cups. If I keep on improving over the way I have I don't see why I can't win a major by the time I'm 22.

"Probably my best chance for a major will be in the British Open or the US Open because you have to drive it long ¿ but the first thing is getting into the majors. I'll have to work hard to do just that."

It's not hard to believe that he will be Holywood's next mega-star.

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