Countdown to the 2008 Open: Whatever happened to Rory?

A year ago an 18-year-old boy from Ulster became the talk of the golfing world by leading the Open. As Rory McIlroy fights to qualify for this year's Championship, he told James Corrigan about what happened next
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Rory McIlroy still has features cherubic enough and a date of birth late enough for many to feel he is too young to be drinking on any licensed establishments, let alone the last chance saloon. Yet the teenager who made his name so spectacularly at last year's Open is determined to have one final shot at making this year's Championship. Time is almost up, but believe it, the Carnoustie Kid still thinks he can become the Birkdale Boy.

It will take something remarkable, however; remarkable even for this 19-year-old who has been accomplishing things remarkable ever since he first picked up a club as a curious two-year-old. Should the darling of the Angus galleries earn the chance to reprise his role on the Southport links next week then he will have needed to finish in the top five of the Scottish Open. A first-round 70 at Loch Lomond yesterday left him slightly off the pace but still close enough to sustain his dream.

Still, if McIlroy falls short there will be no tears, no tantrums, no fluffy animals being hurled over the side of his Bugaboo. He will simply go back to the house he has recently bought in Holywood, his hometown near Belfast, and put up his feet. "Of course, I'll watch the Open if I'm not there," he said when sitting down with The Independent at the European Open last week. "I'm a bit of a golf geek. I always have been and I guess I always will be. The Open's a big thing for me, it was way before last year. As a kid I'd be excited whenever it came around. Even on the TV you can tell from the atmosphere it's special."

It is stories such as McIlroy's that make the Open special; the youngest player in the 156-strong field being the only player not to take a bogey in the first round. With that 68, McIlroy took to the big stage as naturally as the audience took to McIlroy. And that is why he is so keen to return there; now a steely-eyed professional maybe, but still a starry-eyed show-off at heart.

"I must be honest and say that I like the pizzazz," he said. "I don't think it's any coincidence that in this first year of being a pro I've enjoyed my best results when the attendances have been bigger and the interest has been greater. I feel as if I play better in front of big crowds. I just get a buzz out of it."

As if to prove his theory, McIlroy was to show how much he revelled in the spotlight over the next four days of the European Open. Paired with Colin Montgomerie on the Saturday, McIlroy outscored the eight-time Order of Merit winner and then, in atrocious conditions on the final day, held it together to record his second top-10 finish of the season. The cheque was a little over £40,000 and together with the £120,000 he had already compiled, it meant he has all but guaranteed his Tour card for next year. With his main objective achieved with four months to spare, McIlroy can now use the rest of the campaign to continue his education.

"I've learnt a lot things this year," he said. "But chiefly that it's not all glitz and glamour. You have to grind it out, you have to persevere and you have to earn your stripes. Perhaps it's all come a little bit too easy in the past. I always have done things quicker than most players. I won the Irish Amateur when I was 15 and then won my Tour card in just a couple of events last season. This season I've had to tell myself to remain patient. But probably because of what's happened to me that's not been straightforward. I always want it today. Sometimes I forget I'm only 19 years old and have a lot of time on my hands. But then, golf has been all my life."

Well, almost. He began as a two-year-old when his father, Gerry, a scratch golfer, gave him a cut-down club and stood back in awe as his son started hitting 40-yard drives and begged to have breakfast, lunch and supper on the range. By the age of eight he had already brought his obsession indoors. "My mum and dad would be in the main room watching telly, but I'd get bored," recalled Rory. "So I started hitting air balls from the middle of the hallway, through the open kitchen door and into the washing machine. I'd do it all evening. And I actually ended up doing it on television. I won a world junior championship event in Doral in 1998 when I was nine and was invited on a talk show. My parents must have told them what I did to their washing machine, as the crew brought one into the studio with a strip of carpet. They gave me three balls. I hit the rim with the first two and the third one went in."

As he says, from there life accelerated, with such pace that when he arrived at Carnoustie nine years later he did so not as a startled wannabe but as a player convinced of his destiny. He had already decided to turn professional after the Walker Cup in September and had agreed to sign up with ISM, the management company which also has Ernie Els, Lee Westwood, and Darren Clarke on its books. Over the months and years, McIlroy had gotten to know that trio rather well and others such as Nick Faldo, whom he practised with in that Open run-up. While some felt he was out his depth, McIlroy knew he could swim with sharks. He had played in his first professional event at the age of 15 and in eight thereafter and believed he knew what to expect. He was in form, too. Startling form.

"The week before were the European Team Championships and Ireland actually won," he said. "I led the qualifying for the strokeplay, shot 67, 69, sort of breezed through and then won five out of six matches. I was playing very well and was very confident. And when I turned up at the Open and saw Carnoustie for the first time, my first thought was, 'I really like this, this a good course for me'. I could see a lot of shots off the tees and what have you. I figured I had nothing to lose. Just went out and enjoyed it.

Boy, did he enjoy it. "The best part was birdieing the 18th on the first day," he said. "The grandstand was packed. Awesome. It's funny, though. If I had to say what's been my biggest moment to date, it probably didn't come at the Open. No, it came at the Dunhill Links."

By October, he had waved goodbye to the unpaid ranks with an appearance in the Walker Cup, when Great Britain and Ireland were inched out by America on his home turf of Royal County Down. "Making the team was something I'd worked towards for two years," McIlroy said. "I sort of realised afterwards, and no disrespect to the amateur game, but it's only two days and it's not the be-all and end-all. There's been a lot of great players that haven't played Walker Cup and gone on to do great things."

He happened to play with one of them in the Dunhill at St Andrews. "Yeah, I played with Lee [Westwood] and Chubby Chandler [ISM's managing director] in the first three rounds and that helped a lot. I'd like to play every tournament with those two if I could," he laughed. "Birdieing the last two holes to finish third and get my Tour card on just my second event was an amazing feeling; especially to do it on my favourite golf course.

"It all happened in a blur as that night I was then invited to the next week's event in Madrid. So I turned up there on the Tuesday and came fourth. It might have seemed easy, but, you know, I was in a very privileged position as I hadn't been under the same pressures as some other guys just starting out. I had a lot of backing behind me and a great sponsor in the Jumeirah Group."

The trouble is the hype took care of itself as well. "Experts" started tipping McIlroy to make this year's Ryder Cup team and suddenly his 2008 season would be judged on their sensationalism rather than what was previously deemed creditable for a teenager. Fortunately, McIlroy had Holywood to keep him based somewhere near reality. "It's just a small town where everyone knows everyone and that's been really good for me," he said. "Like after the Open they had a dinner for me at the golf club and everything, but otherwise it was just people passing in the street and saying, 'Well done'. That was it. It didn't go overboard.

"That's why I've bought a house there. I've still got my mates up at the club who I go to play with and they keep my feet on the ground. But it was also so I could be independent. It's only five minutes from my parents' house, but I didn't want to live with mum and dad as I've got to travel around on Tour and I'm not going to have my mum and dad there every week."

If McIlroy sounds as if he has matured quickly, it was always inevitable such a precocious talent would have to. "I've always grown up with people older than myself. Just because of golf and being so much better than my age group," he said. "And this whole Tour makes a man of you. It's every man for himself out here. You have to learn that you can't be Mr Nice Guy. If you're in the position to do it, you have to do it and not care about who you may be denying.

"But to me it's still a pursuit. I don't play for the money. I play golf to beat everyone else. That's why I started. It's still golf. It will always just be golf."

Rory McIlroy is a global ambassador for the Jumeirah Group, the Dubai-based luxury hotel group