Fergus McIlroy was a face in the huge crowd when his famous cousin made his emotional homecoming to Holywood Golf Club yesterday. In the company of what seemed his entire school, the 12-year-old joined in the cheering as the new US Open champion walked into the humble entrance which not so long ago served as his portal to golf's fantasy land.
And then, as the members' bar thronged like never before on a wet Wednesday afternoon, Rory announced he owed it all to Fergus. "It was his advice," he laughed, before recounting the tale of how his outspoken little relative had spelt out his shortcomings after the Masters.
The cameras had come to Holywood that Sunday, too, as McIlroy, four shots clear, seemed on the brink of a green jacket. It wasn't to be and the interviewer happened across Fergus. "He's not the finished article yet," blurted Fergus. "He needs to work on his putting." McIlroy heard about the comments and phoned his cousin. "He told me I was right and would work on his putting," said Fergus yesterday. "He did as well – he putted lovely. It's good being Rory's cousin. He gives me stuff. Like clubs."
"I see a lot of myself when I was young in Fergus," said McIlroy. "He's here every day." Should his rivals be worried, should they scream "oh no, not another one" coming to terrorise them, just like Rory did with that eight-shot landslide at Congressional? Well, since starting as a seven-year-old Fergus has come down from a handicap of 54 to 20 and is through to the quarter-finals of Holywood's junior knockout. The competition's name? The Rory McIlroy Cup.
Of course, McIlroy is everywhere in Holywood. As you drive into this suburb of Belfast (population: 13,000) a 20-foot long banner boasts: "Welcome to Holywood, the home of the 2011 US Open champion, Rory McIlroy." As you pass the well-heeled streets up to the golf club, home-made signs salute their hero. "Well done, Rory" reads one, tottering on top of a hedge. The taxi driver tells you how he once picked up the future champion when he was 15. "I asked him if he was any good. He said 'yeah not bad'. I might hang around to see him turn up."
The security guards had other ideas. In a surreal scene, the everyday workings of a small club went on as the superstar returned. On the first tee, four lads drove off as men in yellow jackets checked credentials and shooed non-members behind temporary metal fencing. As they did, an old chap on a rusty bike cycled up the hill. "Yer bringing down the tone of the place," shouted one of his fellow members. The world had come to their backyard and they were proud. For two hours, McIlroy – at the club where he learnt to play with his father, Gerry, his uncles, Colm and Brian and his grandfather, Jimmy – fulfilled media obligations in the cramped environs.
It had been a similar scene a year before at the Rathmore Club in Portrush. McIlroy had been there when Graeme McDowell made his homecoming. "I wouldn't have believed it would happen to me, almost 12 months to the day," he said. McIlroy arrived back late on the Tuesday night, just as east Belfast was enduring a second night of riots. "One day Rory, the next day this..." said the headline on the front of the Belfast Telegraph. A picture of a crying boy peering through shattered glass illustrated the mayhem.
Three miles away McIlroy was at home again after four weeks away. His mum, Rosie, was there as was his long-time girlfriend, Holly. With Gerry and his manager, Stuart Cage, they shared a Chinese takeaway. "No bubbly, I just wanted to sleep in my own bed," said McIlroy. "But when I woke up and went downstairs and there was this trophy on the table. It started to sink in."
There were countless messages to read. A letter from Arnold Palmer, an email from Greg Norman – the Australian who blew the Masters so spectacularly in 1996 and whose words of encouragement were special to McIlroy in the aftermath of his own meltdown – and "countless others from people in sport". "There's probably one from Sir Alex [Ferguson] in there somewhere, I haven't had chance to check," added McIlroy. Sir Alex had also been in touch after Augusta with a gee-up which also meant plenty to this rabid Manchester United fan. "I can't believe my victory has caused this much of a stir," said McIlroy in the club's dining room, as the locals in the rain pressed noses to window. "I didn't expect it to be like this."
If he was being honest this essentially quiet young man, who has referred to himself as "a golf geek", wouldn't like it to be like this, He has already ruled out the prospect of an open-top bus parade. "I'm a golfer not a football team," he said.
And when it comes to all the grand predictions, all the "he's the man to break Jack Nicklaus's record", he was similarly dismissive. "I just this see this as a US Open win," said McIlroy. "I don't need to look too deep into it. I'll let others decide if it represents something bigger than that."
He was wise not to go digging too strenuously as deep down he will know. McDowell's triumph was not on the same level. As popular as G-Mac is, his win was seen as the blessed end of something bad – the end of Europe's 40-year barren run in the US Open – while this is seen as the glorious start of something great; of someone great. "I'm aware the media attention is going to increase," he said. "I'll just attempt to be the same Rory who played here when I was a kid."
What would that Rory think of this Rory and, indeed, the schedule of the next 10 days before he heads to Sandwich for his Open preparations? Two more sponsors' days, two days in the Royal Box at Wimbledon, a trip to Hamburg to watch David Haye versus Wladimir Klitschko. "I love boxing," said McIlroy. "I don't think there's a sport with a better atmosphere." Holywood would disagree. He wants to try watching one of his own beat the world. Now there's an atmosphere.
Open in doubt for Tiger
Tiger Woods announced yesterday he has had to pull out of another tournament through injury, casting yet more doubt on his participation in the Open at Royal St George's, which begins in three weeks' time.
Hampered by knee and Achilles problems since the Masters in April, the former world No 1 will miss next week's AT&T National in Pennsylvania – "Doctor's orders," Woods posted on Twitter.