They’re the golfing jet set, the Ulster high-fliers who earn millions as they travel thousands of miles around the world, entertaining billions of TV viewers as they go on their winning ways but still yearning for down-to-earth home comforts like a pint of Guinness, an Ulster fry or a night out at Ravenhill.
And the mega-rich megastars who’ve become masters of the Majors on both sides of the Atlantic with their Open title glories have suddenly put Northern Ireland in the centre of the golfing universe. And sent ticket sales for the Irish Open soaring to record levels.
For make no mistake — it’s the triumphant trio’s presence which will draw over 100,000 spectators to Royal Portrush golf club and turn the newly-renovated seaside town into a sporting mardi-gras over four days later this month.
Like Elvis, Elton and Madonna, the surnames of the golfing greats are superfluous. Rory, Darren and Graeme will do just fine. Only the most reclusive of hermits with no access to a radio, TV or a newspaper won’t know who you mean.
And much as organisers are looking forward to hosting renowned giants of the game like Padraig Harrington, Paul McGinley, John Daly, Bradley Keegan and even Colin Montgomerie, the truth is they could have sold out the eagerly-anticipated event if the Open-winning wonders from Northern Ireland were the only ones swinging a club.
The three-of-a-kind friends are sporting rarities — prophets who are honoured in their own backyard — heroes in their homeland after Graeme and Rory won the US Open in 2010 and 2011 respectively followed by Darren’s success at the Open in England last year.
And unusually in a province where jaundiced judgements and jealousy aren’t exactly unknown bedfellows, it’s hard to find anyone who begrudges any of the wealthy threesome a penny of the fortunes they’ve earned from the game they’ve played since their youths in three small Northern Irish towns: Holywood, Portrush and Dungannon.
Of course, it helps that none of them are big-time Charlies with heads as big as their bank balances and egos to match.
But even more remarkably in a still-divided place where some people boast that they can discern a man’s religion by the distance between his eyes, many fans seem blissfully unaware of — or perhaps they just don’t care a jot about — the golfers’ religious affiliations.
The collective pride in what they've done clearly overcomes any prejudices.
Okay, so the odd bigot turns up from time to time on the internet to flag up their own perceived problems with emblems and why Rory, Darren or Graeme did or didn’t wrap a red hand of Ulster, a Union Jack or a tricolour around them after their individual or Ryder Cup victories. But in all honesty, the inter-nutters are few and far between among followers of golf, a sporting pursuit which has only increased in popularity here in the wake of the exploits of the big hitters who have so far managed to deftly sidestep any political issues.
And at Portrush, the Taoiseach and the DUP and Sinn Fein heads of the Stormont executive who have invested heavily in the Open will stand side by side cheering on the Irishmen at the tournament which won’t have any Tiger Woods or Lee Westwoods in the field.
That’s because it’s generally accepted that the end of June isn’t the ideal date on the calendar, coming before Opens in France, Scotland and Britain at Royal Lytham & St Anne’s. The biggest stars seldom play four tournaments in a row and so Portrush will lose out.
But Irish golf fanatics don’t give a damn. Just getting up close and personal with Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke will be enough for thousands of fans who will study their every drive, bunker shot or putt.
Graeme McDowell's resurgence in form at the US Open has made him one to watch again and even though Rory disappointed at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, his
popularity is such that he will undoubtedly be the Pied Piper of Portrush drawing the biggest number of fans on the links. For even though his game has wavered of late he is still the most illustrious global sporting figure ever to come from Northern Ireland.
George Best and Alex Higgins may have been special in their own sports but they weren’t instantly recognisable all over the world, particularly in big-bucks America where McIlroy is such an icon that he got to throw the ceremonial first pitch at a San Francisco Giants baseball game earlier this month.
He has also lunched with President Barack Obama — and he’s chatted with the Queen at Newbury races.
Which makes it simply impossible to over-egg the McIlroy pudding. Trot out the most exaggerated clichés you can about him, and you’ll still fall short of summing up the curly-haired star of the County Down who was born to be a champion.
His parents Gerry and Rosie worked around the clock to fund his passion and potential but kept him grounded and well-mannered and well away from the troubles which had claimed the life of a great uncle, Joe McIlroy, an innocent family man shot dead by the UVF in a sectarian shooting in Belfast in 1973.
But as soon as the small-town boy had become an international phenomenon after his victory in the US Open last year, Rory’s life changed in the blink of an eye.
And nowadays he can scarcely walk down any street without someone spotting him or asking him for a photograph or autograph.
Rory, however, has the fame game off to a tee.
He has charm, charisma and he’s a natural with the Press. “He carries himself brilliantly and he’s never stuck for an answer,” says one journalist. “He comes across as a genuine and affable young man, polite and patient and the camera adores him.
“For someone so young to be so articulate is quite astonishing. Just think Wayne Rooney and you’ll get the point. Yet Rory doesn’t come across as pushy or big-headed. His parents have every reason to be proud of everything about him.”
At Sullivan Upper School in Holywood, they realised early on that they had a star in the making. Former headmaster John Stevenson said it was no surprise that Rory attained the ambitions which he wrote about 12 years ago in an essay in which he said “I am a keen golfer and I hope to get on the golf team.” If anyone had any doubts about what he could do, Rory soon exploded them and he was conquering all before him in his teens and in July 2005 when he was barely 16, he shot a new competitive record score of 61 on the Dunluce links at Royal Portrush.
Slowly but surely, the golfing greats started to take the young pretender seriously and before long he was the subject of TV documentaries and newspaper and magazine articles in which his relationship with his childhood sweetheart Holly Sweeney only added to the romance.
Rory spent hundreds of thousands on a home for them outside Belfast after having to convince the bemused owner that he really did have the money to buy it.
After he won the Open, McIlroy candidly revealed that he might buy himself a new home in Florida to give himself a base to play on the US circuit. Immediately there were murmurs of discontent that he was getting too big for his Northern Irish boots and his home near Moneyreagh where he’d built himself an expensive practice range and a football pitch.
But one commentator said: “It was nonsense. Rory loves Northern Ireland. But his life changed instantly after the Open win. It was probably unavoidable that he would outgrow his old stomping ground. The world, not Ulster, is his oyster now.
“But he’ll still come back. Look at the way he popped home for an Ulster rugby game at Ravenhill the other month with his girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki”
Rory doesn’t have his own private jet. Yet. But he does hire one to transport him to golf tournaments and to romantic dates halfway round the world with his tennis star partner. With millions in the bank, he’s hardly going to go EasyJet, though Darren Clarke did after a tour win in Majorca last year and bought all the passengers a celebration drink.
But then money is rarely an object for golfers. And McIlroy’s girlfriend Wozniacki also has bank accounts with a dizzying number of zeros at the end of them.
But it’s Rory’s relationship with the Danish beauty that has caused his fans and critics to question his commitment to his game. And at times their love story has seemed like a soap opera with Rory keeping his 1.1 million followers on Twitter up to date with the couple’s meetings in cities across Europe, though he has stopped posting messages in the middle of important golf tournaments like he used to do.
Golfing experts — and there are plenty of them in every bar of every club — were quick to blame his dalliances for McIlroy’s recent slump in form.
And while there was no denying that he’d taken his foot off the gas Rory insisted it wasn’t the end of the world.
McIlroy himself knew better than anyone else that his golf had gone off the boil but he didn’t need newspaper writers to tell him he had to knuckle back down to business.
Which he did by pencilling in an extra competition just before the US Open at the Olympic club in San Francisco, a move frowned upon by the legend that is Jack Nicklaus who is one of Rory’s most fervent fans.
But what the critics forget is that McIlroy is only 23 years old. He doesn’t have a one track mind and there’s more to his life
than golf. He has admitted that he likes to enjoy himself even if that means following his heart half way round the planet.
But by ignoring Nicklaus and playing before the US Open, he demonstrated that despite his tender years — which were underlined by the appearance of his baby-faced friends from home at the US Open — Rory is his own man.
Something he also illustrated by ditching his long-time manager and friend, the personable Chubby Chandler before he signed for Conor Ridge’s Horizon Sports Management firm in Dublin.
No-one really knows why he made the switch just after Chandler had secured him a new £1m-a-year sponsorship deal with Santander. Rory said it was because he wanted Ridge, who also has Graeme McDowell on his books, to take him to the next stage of his career.
Another more expected change which came about as a result of Rory’s heightened fame was the reduction in his accessibility to the media. A select band of writers used to be able to pick up the phone and ring him direct. But now most of them have to go through his management company.
“It’s not prima donna stuff,” says one journalist. “Remember he’s one of the top sportsmen in the world now. You can’t expect to talk to him whenever you want. He is a totally different zone now. But that is hard for some people who knew Rory to accept.”
With Rory spending more and more of his time in America — and reports claiming that he is selling his home in Moneyreagh — there’s been renewed speculation that he may settle permanently in the States. Or as permanently as any golfer can settle anywhere.
But friends say he feels comfortable in the USA. And the USA feels comfortable with him. Not least because he’s young and Irish. He’s the whole package, the real deal.
That’s why sponsors have invested millions of dollars, pounds and yen in a bankable certainty like Rory McIlroy who like others at the top of the sporting tree lives a closeted, pampered lifestyle.
One man who knows the game inside out said: “Modern golfers are lifted and laid. For some of them golf is the only thing in their life. They go to a tournament on a Monday or a Tuesday, play in the Pro-am on the Wednesday and then give their all in the four days of the competition if they make the cut.
“That is all they know. It’s a very regimented and disciplined life and very selfish. But you have to be selfish and single-minded because it is them playing against the rest of the field and the course. If they falter, the fall can be painful and the recovery difficult.”
Just ask Darren Clarke. Last year, after a dip in his game, few pundits gave him a chance of making it a Northern Irish hat-trick of Open wins in England. But perhaps spurred on by the successes of McIlroy and McDowell, he conquered his demons. And then some.
But golfing analysts say that above all Darren had to convince himself he could still be a winner in a game where psychology can be just as crucial as the ability to unleash a hefty drive or sink a tricky putt.
“It’s all about being in the proper frame of mind.” says one writer. “You have to be totally focused. Even naturally gifted players like Rory need dedication and discipline.”
One of the most significant changes in Rory McIlroy’s life has been the dramatic improvements in his health and in his body after he hooked up with Steve McGregor, a British trainer who set about making him fitter and giving him a new muscular look to help him improve his balance and his power.
As well as visits to the gym, nutritionists also work on Rory’s diet and tell him what he should be eating — primarily healthier foods including chicken and broccoli.
“I’m the same weight as I was when I started but I’ve gained muscle. I’ve gained mass,” says Rory.
Darren Clarke, a renowned party animal and Guinness guzzler, has also signed up to a new fitness regime to shed weight and to hopefully return to the sort of form which won him the Open last year at Royal St George’s.
A groin injury has necessitated rest and recuperation but Darren lost a stone and a half after upping his gym work and cutting down on junk food and booze.
Local fitness coach Jonny Bloomfield has been advising Clarke on how to get back into shape.
In terms of their playing, the top stars employ a number of coaches including specialist advisers for specific parts of their game like putting.
For Rory, his coach is Bangor professional Michael Bannon who has been his mentor since McIlroy was just eight years old.
Bannon, who won the European PGA Golf Coach of the year award in 2011, goes wherever he’s needed and only a few weeks ago he was in Florida trying to iron out problems from Rory’s game. Friends say his ability to spot flaws is uncanny.
Bannon, who for 15 years was the pro at Rory’s Holywood golf club, always knew Rory would be a winner and he remembers how 10 years ago he caught his young pupil trying to imitate his hero Tiger Woods. “Why don’t you just swing like Rory McIlroy,” Bannon told him. And he listened.
Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell are both coached by Englishman Pete Cowen who has also been instrumental in guiding Lee Westwood to the pinnacle of world golf.
Of course the services of the most successful coaches don’t come cheap. But golf is a multi-billion dollar industry thanks to the seemingly endless cash pumped into the game by sponsors who appear immune to the recession.
“Golf companies clearly don’t care how much money it takes, even at a time of an economic downturn, to get the right man on board,” says an insider
“Prize money is huge but it’s almost dwarfed by the sponsorship deals which are on tap.
“Sponsors are queuing up to make sure the stars wear their shoes, play with their clubs and golf balls, wear their watches, and travel about in their cars. All with their logos clearly visible, of course.”
Rory, Darren and Graeme are often like walking advertising hoardings as they play in the majors and sponsors make huge demands on the time of the men they endorse and call their ambassadors.
They don’t like backing losers and if players don’t make the cuts, they are seldom amused.
McIlroy in particular is like a magnet for the sponsors who know their riches won’t just buy them the endorsement of a popular golfer but also a heaven-sent advertisement for their wares as well.
Along with the sponsorship cheques,
the firms also pay spectacular bonuses to their golfers if they win tournaments. After Rory McIlroy won the US Open, one of his backers gave him a £2m thank-you.
And recently, a list of the top 50 most marketable sports stars on earth had McIlroy at number two just behind Brazilian footballer Neymar. The judges from SportsProMedia.com made their choices based on potential earnings, age and willingness to engage with sponsors.
Rory’s squeeze Caroline Wozniacki was listed at number 13, making them the world’s most marketable couple.
Rory’s deal with Santander, which included a high profile TV advertising campaign, was worth millions and his other sponsors include Audemars Piguet watches, Footjoy golf shoes and gloves; Jumeirah hotels; Oakley and Skins golf clothes and Titleist clubs.
In the Sunday Times sport rich list last month, Rory was estimated to be worth £11m. But if his career continues to flourish the way it has done, the rewards which await him are boundless. He could become one of the wealthiest sportsmen in history, rocketing him from his current position at 91 in the top 100 which he currently shares with Toome jockey Tony McCoy and England manager Roy Hodgson. Darren Clarke was at number 64 on the money leaderboard. The Sunday Times said he was worth £15m, pointing out that he had pocketed £880,000 for winning the Open at Sandwich, but that he had also got a £2m bonus from one his sponsors, Dunlop sportswear for whom he’s now featuring in a TV advert alongside Lee Westwood.
The 2010 US Open champion, Graeme McDowell was number 84 with his wealth estimated at £12m. His sponsorship deals for last year alone were calculated at £3.5m.
One of McDowell’s backers is Marquis jet who regularly fly him from tournament to tournament. He has repeatedly said that one of his pet hates about golf is the travel. He jokes that he would love to see the invention of a tele-porter which would whisk him in seconds to competitions which are in fact hours and hours and thousands of miles away.
In the meantime, he says: “When I choose to fly privately, the guys at Marquis jet make that part of my job much easier.”
Among McDowell’s other sponsors are Kartel, a Dublin firm who have designed a G-Mac range of clothes and Mastercard and Zurich insurance.
His earnings and sponsorship deals have enabled Graeme to build his dream home in Lake Nona in Florida, a sprawling resort where he has lived for over seven years. On his doorstep is a championship golf course and his luxury house which he designed himself has a snooker room, cinema, sunken dining room, climate controlled wine cellar, bar, swimming pool and ‘chill out’ area overlooking the lake and a conservation area.
‘Ordinary ‘houses in Lake Nona are currently on the market for around $5m (£3.25m) which is well within the reach of Rory McIlroy if he should decide to listen to his friend Graeme’s pleas to settle in Orlando.
“We are very fortunate that we play a game we love where we can make a lot of money. I don’t take any of it for granted,” says Graeme, whose parents Kenny and Marian are regular visitors to America, armed with soda bread and potato farls for their son’s beloved Ulster fry.
Graeme, whose girlfriend is beautiful interior designer Kristin Stape, still has a home of his own in Portrush and he keeps in touch with friends there including Radio Ulster presenter Alan Simpson who remembers how his golfing career took off as a youngster.
“I used to see him when he was no size at all carrying his golf clubs down to Rathmore Golf Club accompanied by Ricky Elliott, another talented youngster who is now a touring caddie with Ben Curtis. Rory used to be on the course from dusk to dawn, seven days a week and his Mum brought him down a few sandwiches in a Tupperware box.
“Graeme just got better and better. Then he went to America and that was the making of him after he realised he could make a career out of golf. But he’s worked hard to get to where he is and this champagne lifestyle that people talk about isn’t easy.
“It’s sometimes a lonely existence clocking up thousands of miles and staying in hotels which probably start to look the same. And then the golfers have to get themselves up for tournaments and ensure they’re on top form.
“But Graeme loves nothing more than coming back to Portrush to see his family and his friends, and just to relax.”
The Port has also become home to Darren Clarke who lives with his wife, model agency supremo Alison Campbell, and his two sons from his marriage to his late wife Heather whom he met at a nightclub just across the road from the Irish Open venue. Only last year, however, Darren’s manager Chubby Chandler said the Dungannon man was ‘almost broke’ before his Open win. Shortly after Chandler’s claims, Clarke stepped from his car in Killarney to deny he was on his uppers. The car was a Ferrari.
But while they may enjoy the five-star trappings of success, Northern Ireland’s golfers have demonstrated their hearts are in the right place when it comes to raising money for charities.
Only two months ago Rory, who became involved with UNICEF to assist needy children all over the world, gave the organisation’s logo its own prominent place on his new golf bag in a bid to raise the profile of their work which he had supported with a visit to earthquake-ravaged Haiti. And he has recently filmed a video to help cancer research at a children’s’ hospital in Memphis.
Graeme McDowell, who’s been a long-term supporter of Multiple Sclerosis charities, has launched his own G-Mac Foundation backing children’s medical research and making the dreams of sick youngsters come true by flying them to Disneyworld in Orlando for a holiday.
Some of his guests on that trip were patients at Crumlin Children’s Hospital in Dublin and earlier this month Graeme donated £128,000 to modernise its cardiology department.
Along with several businessmen, he also helped fund the purchase of paint for a huge drive to spruce up the sorry looking centre of Portrush for the Open.
His friend Alan Simpson also spearheaded a campaign to remove eyesores from the town and to have signs erected welcoming visitors to the ‘major golf capital of the world’ and which listed not only Darren and Graeme but also the late Fred Daly among the Open winning icons from Portrush.
Darren Clarke set up a foundation in 2002 and he also supports a golf school bearing his name in County Antrim.
Darren has also been a willing ambassador for the Irish Open at Royal Portrush where he has been a familiar figure in recent weeks as he practices for the competition despite his groin injury.
It’s predicted that TV pictures of the Open will be beamed into over 400 million homes around the world.
Portrush wasn’t initially the favourite to host the Open. It was thought it would be played at Carton House at Maynooth and there’s been a heated debate as to the readiness and infrastructure of the County Antrim venue to host such a big event.
But after the sensational achievements of the Northern Irish golfers last year, it became almost inevitable that Portrush would land the Open.
Officials from the R&A, who are the governing authority for golf in most of the world, will be at Portrush to see if they should bring the Open from Britain to Dunluce in the future.
The more immediate hope for golf fans here is that Rory, Darren and Graeme will be vying for the Irish Open trophy come the final Sunday at Portrush.
But whatever happens, organisers are confident that Northern Irish golf will be the winner.