Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Rory won’t let a flag drive wedge between his fans

He’s the £150m face of Nike and Belfast Telegraph Sports Star of the Year. The last thing Rory McIlroy needs is a flag row, says Brian Rowan

Colm McIlroy has already asked for his birthday present and is quietly confident it will be delivered.

He’s the uncle of the world’s number one golfer Rory McIlroy, whose £150m deal with Nike has guaranteed his place in a very rich man’s world.

Indeed, it has taken him to a new level; the money a recognition of sporting achievements that place him high above the Northern Ireland greats, including George Best, Alex Higgins and Eddie Irvine.

No sportsman from here has climbed to these heights; world number one, already a two-time Major champion, top of the US and European money lists, twice on the winning Ryder Cup side and now the new golfing face and voice of a giant sports brand.

McIlroy is box office, his name and achievements stretching way beyond the frame and boundaries of his own sport.

And his romance with Danish tennis professional Caroline Wozniacki has added to that sporting show business appeal.

Recently, McIlroy was short-listed for BBC Sports Personality — losing out in an Olympic year to the golden moments produced by Wiggins and Ennis.

But last night he won the prestigious award presented by this newspaper — the Belfast Telegraph Sports Star of the Year 2012.

And we are now looking at a player instantly recognisable across the world — a global star.

From his Holywood home, his uncle Colm is watching the story unfold. And, with every page-turn, there is another headline: “He’s got there quicker than I thought he would,” Colm told me, reminding us that his nephew is still only 23.

The McIlroys are careful and measured with every word they speak; as careful as Rory would be standing over a putt for a big title.

They have to be, because within their family circle they now have someone who is world news — both front page and back.

So, what you get are the bits they are comfortable talking about. And, as Colm approaches his 50th birthday, he doesn’t mind revealing the present he has asked for.

“I told his father [Gerry] to tell his son I’ll be expecting a full set of Nike clubs in April.”

And, if delivered, this will be Colm’s cut of that multi-million pound deal.

His birthday is on April 10 and the next day his nephew will begin play in his next Major, the Masters at Augusta.

And, more than the money, it will be his performances in these showcase tournaments that will eventually be used to define his place in the golfing game; how he will be measured against Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

“It’s all about being number one in the world, the Majors and the big tournaments,” Colm said in response to a question about the money.

Of course, the Nike deal is hugely important in terms of securing Rory’s financial future, but the family don’t go there in the few words they are prepared to speak to reporters.

“It’s made him richer,” Colm said, in that understated McIlroy way of responding to these things.

“And, obviously, you change a bit. But anytime you talk to him, he’s still the same wee lad; still a bit of craic.”

Obviously, they don’t see as much of him now. Contact is by text message, or in telephone conversations with Gerry, as across the world the biggest tournaments seek his presence.

It has been a remarkable journey to the top of his sport, achieved in a surprisingly short period of time.

Six years ago, when McIlroy was still a teenager, I interviewed Nick Faldo and Ronan Rafferty about this emerging talent.

The interviews were part of a documentary I made for UTV — Rory’s Game — and it was in that period that he won the Silver Medal as the top amateur at |the Open Championship at Carnoustie.

There, he played his way into the headlines on one of his sport’s biggest stages. And maybe it was then that we all really began to believe that he could be as good as all the predictions were suggesting.

But this good — this soon — and with a significant gap opened up between him and the now world number two Tiger Woods; well, that’s another matter and not something we could have seen as we peered into golf’s crystal balls six years ago, as this young man began his professional journey to the top.

It has been both swift and convincing. But still this young golfer walks on egg-shells, caught in a dilemma about who to represent in the 2016 Olympics in Rio — Britain or Ireland?

It may prove too controversial a choice to make; a decision arguably best not made in a divided community within which there will be those who either can’t, or won’t, understand.

McIlroy, in a recent BBC interview, raised the possibility of not playing, and that might be the best answer.

Why take all the criticism, why agonise over a decision for an event that, in the grand scheme of things, will not mean much when it comes to how he is judged within his sport.

Would Rory rather have another Major or an Olympic Gold Medal? All within golf would answer that question without a pause: Majors are what really matter.

And McIlroy has begun the chase trying to catch first Woods and then Nicklaus.

Can he do it? It is a huge ask, but the question is being asked of a huge talent.

‘McIlroy has begun the chase to catch Woods and then Nicklaus’

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