'He'd be sitting in the pram with a plastic golf club in his hand'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

From a boy to a man. Eight-year-old Rory McIlroy used to chip golf balls with a plastic club into the washing machine at his Holywood home in Northern Ireland. The 22-year-old spent the last four days tossing the world's greatest players into a spin cycle and hanging them out to dry. It has been a glimpse of what to expect for the next decade.

Sure, McIlroy will throw away plenty of majors. But not this time. Golfers have to embrace defeat more times than glory and McIlroy will deal with Kipling's twin impostors in equal measure. He will soak up the wise words of his mentor Jack Nicklaus, who has won more majors (18) than any other player in history. And when McIlroy is done, there is every chance he will be crowned Europe's greatest ever golfer having chalked up more major victories than Nick Faldo (six) and Seve Ballesteros (five) combined.

Washington's golf fans have been chanting his name all weekend. He has cracked America quicker than The Beatles. How appropriate that all this has happened in the nation's capital, just a 20-minute cab ride from the White House. Golf has its new hero. McIlroy really is the new Tiger – but with charm, grace, impeccable manners and a boyish smile that makes everyone want to root for him – win or lose.

McIlroy has been a shooting star waiting to explode across a wider canvas. "He was holding a golf club before he could walk," said his mother Rosie. "He'd be sitting in the pram with a plastic golf club in his hand. That's the way we were woken up in the morning: banged over the head with a plastic golf club." He was hitting 40-yard drives when he was two-years-old. Aged nine, he won the Under 10 World Championship at Doral in Florida. Aged 11, he shot level par at his home club in Holywood, near Belfast. Aged 13, he was a scratch handicap golfer. Aged 15, he smashed the course record at Royal Portrush with a 61. He was then invited to play in his first professional event, the 2005 British Masters and represented Europe in the Junior Ryder Cup. The following year he won the European Amateur championship, and played for Ireland in the Eisenhower Trophy, the amateur team championship. In 2007, he shot that sensational 68 in the first round of the Open at Carnoustie (the only bogey-free round of the day). He made the weekend cut to be the first Irish amateur to win the Silver Medal prize for best amateur since Joe Carr in 1965. McIlroy then ended his amateur career in Great Britain & Ireland's Walker Cup team as the No 1 amateur in the world. He turned pro in 2007 as a freckle-faced skinny 18-year-old with a wiry mop top fashioned at the Marc Bolan School of Hairdressing. "I have no problem saying I am going to be one of the best golfers in the world," he said in 2008. "I don't want that to sound cocky because I'm not." It didn't and he isn't.

It has been a breathtaking ride. The comparisons with Tiger's youth are obvious. But, unlike Tiger's father, Earl, McIlroy's father, Gerry, has never boasted that his son would have a greater impact than Gandhi. Eejit, as they say in Northern Ireland. Rory remains loyal to his working class roots. "We lived in a four-bed semi- with a bit of a garden. Just a normal house," he said. Rosie worked factory shifts in Belfast putting rolls of tape into boxes and stacking them. His father Gerry juggled three jobs including bar tending and cleaning at a rugby club. McIlroy paid tribute to them at Congressional. "They sacrificed summer holidays so they could take me to play golf," he said. "I'm very thankful for how far they've gotten me."

McIlroy loves nothing more than taking weeks off from his Hollywood lifestyle to slip back into spending Holywood nights down the pub with his school mates, watching Manchester United on TV or crashing out at someone's house listening to music (Kings of Leon, 50 Cent) or watching movies (Hangover, Anchorman). But as McIlroy's fame explodes around the globe, it will become increasingly difficult for him to hang on to normalcy, as American psychologists like to call it. But he will not retreat into a gated private community any time soon. McIlroy plans to stay public. It's here the comparisons with Tiger end. "You can be the No 1 golfer in the world, but if you seem personable, you'll be able to do it," he said. "Tiger put up a barrier from the media and the public and so no one could get to him. I am determined to hang on to my ordinariness."

McIlroy is indeed an ordinary kid – with an extraordinary talent. There will be victories and failures. But, whatever happens next in his adult life, McIlroy is destined to make sporting history. But for his mother, nothing will change. "He's still my wee baby," Rosie said.