Sky's the limit for Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy watches Tiger Woods, Thomas Bjorn, Darren Clarke and Ernie Els play an exhibition match at Jumeirah in Dubai in 2006. Picture © Brian Keogh / irishgolfdesk.com

Rory McIlroy watches Tiger Woods, Thomas Bjorn, Darren Clarke and Ernie Els play an exhibition match at Jumeirah in Dubai in 2006. Picture © Brian Keogh / irishgolfdesk.com

It was long after he had ceased giving his parents an early morning wake up call by whacking them over the head with a plastic golf club and several years after he had started referring to himself as Rory ‘Nick Faldo’ McIlroy.

“Come and look at this boy,” called a wee voice from the living room. Rosie left her chores and headed for the telly. “Look at this boy Mum,” said a then seven-year-old McIlroy, the future European No 1 amateur and the fourth ranked in the world at the end of 2006.

Tiger Woods had just dusted off Steve Scott at the 38th to complete a hat-trick of US Amateur Championship victories and McIlroy could see straight away that this was a player who was going to be something special. It was also the beginning of a new obsession for a young man that many have tipped as the best thing to come out of Ulster since Darren Clarke, George Best and The Undertones.

Comparing McIlroy with Woods is an exercise in futility but there are parallels between them that bear telling. Both were hitting golf balls before they were out of nappies and breaking par before their 10th birthday. Both have that wonderful knack of holing crucial putts when they absolutely must hole them. And both were household names in their native land before they took the plunge into the dark, deep waters of professional golf.

When Woods turned professional at the Greater Milwaukee Open in August 1996, his first words at the obligatory news conference were a prophetic: “Hello World.” As a proud son of Ulster and a native of Holywood, County Down, McIlroy is more likely to say something like: “How’s about you.” Or perhaps not.

With his place in the 2007 Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup side at Royal County Down looking as good a bet as windy day at Rosses Point, McIlroy plans to say hello to the world of professional golf on September 10 and make his professional debut in the Quinn Direct British Masters the following week.

That event will be promoted by Chubby Chandler’s International Management Group, the red hot favourites to ‘sign up’ the most prodigious golfing talent to emerge from Ireland since Clarke traded his barman’s apron for a cashmere overcoat and a healthy overdraft.

When Chandler joined forces with Clarke at the start of the 1990s, he knew he would always have business. No doubt he feels the same way about McIlroy, the Wee Man to his northern brethern, and a player whose amateur record may well put Clarke’s in the shade before he’s finished.

Clarke won the South in 1989 and then took the Close, the North, the East and the Spanish Amateur in 1990. In 2005, McIlroy became the youngest winner in the history of both the West (aged 15) and Irish Close Championship (aged 16) before going round Royal Portrush in any almost sacrilegious 11 under par 61 to lead the qualifiers in the North.

His feat in going out and winning the West and Close again in 2006 before crushing the opposition in the European Individual Amateur Championship last August was not so much an encore as a whole new recital. As a result of his European title win, he is set make his major championship debut in the Open at Carnoustie next July.

Who knows what this young man, who does not celebrate his 18th birthday until May 4, can achieve in the game? Well, Clarke does.

“I think he is going to be sensational,” Clarke said recently. “He is as big a talent as I have seen for a very long time. He has his head screwed on. He knows exactly what he is doing and his record speaks for itself. There are not many Irish amateurs that have the record that he has. He has been capped for Ireland at every level and he has successfully defended every championship he has ever won. That is a scary stat.

“He has already played professional tournaments - quite a few - and he knows the story now. It is not as if he is going to come into this totally green. I had not played that many professional tournaments before turning pro. But he as played quite a few now. He has travelled around the world. He has won around the world. And if you take a look at what Tiger does, he travels around the world and he wins around the world.

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Rory McIlroy won the Irish Close Championship at Westport in 2005. Pic courtesy Westport Golf Club.“And travelling and playing in different grasses and at different places around the world is the best preparation you can possibly get. He has done all that and he has won all around the world. As far as I can see it is just a natural progression for him.”

Like Clarke, McIlroy has no plan B. It’s golf or nothing and he can’t wait to sink his teeth into the professional side of a game that he has lived and breathed since his Dad Gerry took him down to the practice ground at Holywood Golf Club when he was still in his pram.

Clarke pointed out that he was always going to play golf. There was no other option. “I didn’t ever think that I wasn’t going to make it,” he said. So is McIlroy cut from the same cloth?

“Yes he is. He definitely is. And rightly so,” Clarke insisted. “He is that good. I don’t think he has anything to worry about. If he keeps working and being as dedicated as he is, I think he’ll do well.”

Holywood is just a few miles from Belfast’s famous docklands on the shores of Belfast Lough. The giant Harland and Wolff gantry cranes stand like sentinels guarding the birthplace of the great George Best, who now lends his name to the City Airport on the south shore. For a youngster planning to make the world his workplace, McIlroy lives a convenient 1.1 miles from the end of the main runway in a leafy, middle class part of town.

The mixed non-denominational grammar school he left two months before his 16th birthday, Sullivan Upper, is no more than a drive and a lob wedge from the front door of the modest corner house where he lives with his parents Rosie and Gerry. Holywood Golf Club is 1,000 yards from the sofa where McIlroy sits chomping on toast and sipping tea as he talks of his hopes and dreams, of his love of music, his girlfriend Holly, his British identity, playing Darren Clarke for money (and losing) and his assiduous preparations for the biggest year of his sporting life.

“The 10th of September 2007,” he rattles off with a grin. That’s D-day. The day he turns professional. “It’s a date I have in my mind. It would be great to finish off at Royal County Down hopefully winning the Walker Cup and capping off a great amateur career and then going on to bigger and better things. Hopefully.”

Dressed in smart grey slacks and a grey top, McIlroy is supremely confident in his ability but there is nothing brash about him. There is no swagger. He is of average height, well short of the six foot plus that forces you to look up standing next to Clarke, or Woods, or Adam Scott. There is power there, however, and he’s filling out all the time.

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His swing was already thing of beauty at Westport in 2005.The waif like 14-year-old creature with the blonde streaks who stomped into the last 16 of the 2004 West of Ireland championship at Rosses Point is no more. McIlroy is becoming a man. But he’s a man with a plan and after travelling the world from the time he was seven years old, he is proud of his achievements so far but conscious that the best if yet to come, especially after the disappointment of failing his first driving test the day before.

“I feel that the amount of work I put into it I should be winning all this stuff that I do,” he says nonchalantly. “It all started when Dad brought me down to the range every night and I just wanted to hit balls and hit balls and hit balls. I just loved it.”

His mother jokes that her husband had wee Rory strapped to the golf bag as she worked days and Gerry took care of their young son before heading to his workplace in the evenings.

McIlroy heads outside to have his picture taken on the artificial putting green that wraps around the house. It’s where he spends most of his time when he’s not away competing. His mother is ironing in the kitchen and she admits that she worries about what might happen if things don’t work out for her only child.

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Gerry McIlroy and his young son.“Of course I worry about him,” she says in her Lurgan burr. “He’s still my wee baby. But he’s been travelling since he was no age. But he’s had a taste of it now and it’s what he wants to do. Sure he’s been talking about this since he was two years of age. ‘I want to be a professional golfer’, he said. He’d have the golf magazines out on the floor and he’d go from page to page and find a picture of Nick Faldo and point and say Nick Faldo. He used to call himself Rory Nick Faldo McIlroy.

“He had the little plastic clubs when he was a wee baby and we were going through a set a week because he was was hitting hard balls. He didn’t want to play with plastic balls, he wanted to play with hard ones. He was in the paper from the time he was 18 months old because Gerry had some cut down clubs made up for him. He was still in nappies, I remember. I worked during the day and Gerry worked at night. So Gerry would be away up to the golf club. They were on the golf course all day.

“He was holding a golf club before he could walk. 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!

“When he was older I remember seeing in the paper that some kid from up around here was going out to Doral to play in the World Junior Championship and I said, that’s what we should be doing with Rory, because there was nothing for him here. When he was eight and nine we starting taking him over to San Diego in the summer for the Junior World’s. We made it out summer holiday. We worked hard and lived off Gerry’s wages and saved mine to go away with Rory. It was hard, but we can’t say we didn’t give him.”

Hawaii was another regular summer stop for the McIlroys, where Rory would go and play in the World Junior Masters. Now his sights are set on the Masters Tournament itself, as well as Ryder Cups, majors, Opens and Orders of Merit.

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Rory with the West of Ireland trophy.Blessed with an incredible natural talent, McIlroy is an impressive plus five handicapper now but he’s working hard on improving his game so that he will be ready to emulate his great pal Ollie Fisher, who became the third youngest player to earn his card at the European Tour Qualifying School Finals at San Roque last November at 18 years and 64 days.

“I am out there on my green every day, chipping and putting all the time,” he says. “I’ve been putting quite a bit and trying to get that figured out. I feel like my stroke was addressed a bit off the toe so I was coming inside and giving it a bit of left to right. Now I feel as if I am lining it up off the heel and hit it more straight back and straight through. So there is more chance of it going in.”

The mechanics of the golf swing have no escaped him either and while he has been coached since he was a child by Bangor’s Michael Bannon and gets help from the Golfing Union of Ireland’s Neil Manchip, he has taken things a little further in the amateur off season by calling in some bio-mechanics experts to take a closer look.

“Dr Rob Neal, who works at Doral with Jim McLean, he came over and got all my bio-mechanics. I was strapped me up to a great machine. You can see yourself as a mannequin on the computer and shows you all your angles. I spent three hours with him also worked with a guy called Michael Dalgleish, who is also from Australia and works with the Golf Athlete programme and works with Jason Day and Camilo Villegas.

“Paul Gray, the pro up at Holywood, is big into that sort of stuff and they were in London so he asked them to come over to see me for a couple of days. You can see how much your shoulders and hips turn and your X factor. I have a big shoulder turn but your hips should only turn about 45 degrees and my hips were turning a bit more. So I need to load a bit into my right side for a bit of resistance.

“So I just need to work on strengthening and stretching. My hand and body speed is up there. I am faster than Camilo - hand and body speed. But my hand speed is just a bit slower and that’s connected to your back and Camilo is a bit stronger than me in that area right now.

“I am going to have to put a really big effort in with my fitness this winter. I watched Camilo in the MasterCard Masters last year (05) in Australia and he rips through it, he’s so strong. I’ve got a bit bigger over the last year but I need to get to the gym and strengthen my core. It will make me a more consistent ball-striker for next year. It is not about length, I know I have that. It is about improving my bad shots so that they are not as bad, basically.

“Core stability is vital. If you core is not strong you go all over the place. IIt is just a big aspect of golf now, if you look at Tiger Woods and all the good players. They are all physically strong and fit.”

Getting his body in shape means going to the gym and getting to the best gym in town means getting his driving test. McIlroy already has his eye on a BMW 3 series but for now he plans to enjoy his short winter break by going shopping and to the cinema with his girlfriend of 15 months, Holly Sweeney.

“I try to see Holly as much as possible. She only lives 10 minutes away and goes to school at Sullivan Upper, where I used to go. I go to see movies with her and go out shopping in Belfast. I have a few friends - five or six really good friends from Holywood. Some are from the golf club, some are from school and the others are members at Royal Belfast, which is just up the road.”

His other passions are horror flicks and the stand up comedy of Chris Rock, Lee Evans, Peter Kay and Dave Chappelle. As for music, he says: “A bit of hip hop, a bit of rap, a bit of rock. Anything that’s good at the minute. I download. A few 50 Cent, Eminem and Dr Drey. I buy DVDs too.”

Much to the chagrin of Dad Gerry, who is a die hard City fan, McIlroy’s other great passion is soccer and his beloved Manchester United. His mentor, Darren Clarke, is a Liverpool supporter, adding an extra edge to their frequent phone calls.

Despite his incredible success in the Ryder Cup at the K Club, so soon after the death of his wife Heather, the Dungannon man has made a point of staying in touch with McIlroy, who is a member of his Foundation. Last November, Clarke treated McIlroy to a day out that would have cost a corporate client a handsome six figure sum. But he’d happily do anything for a kid who is more than likely to be playing out of the same ISM stable as himself, Lee Westwood, David Howell and Paul McGinley next year.

“I’d arranged to play a game with Darren at Queenwood that week so I flew over to meet him in Manchester the day after the Champions League game and we got his plane down to London. It was a really cool day,” McIlroy gushes. “We went to his house and he’d just got a new Lamborghini Murcielago with a new sports exhaust on it, new wheels. DVD player in the front. Unbelievable.

“The plane is amazing. It can take ten and he was telling me he was getting speakers on it for his iPod. He started playing Scissors Sisters on it in the the car when we went for a spin. The Lamborghini is a silver-gray six litre, V12. He’s redoing his house as well and some of the new stuff he’s got in his house is amazing as well. He had the 60 DC reg on his Bentley but he’s transferring that the Lamborghini. He’s got seven cars in the house. Bentley, Lamborghini. Range Rover Sport, he got an BMW M6 convertible the week after I saw him, two Jags and a BMW X3.”

McIlroy loves Clarke and left the Men’s Interprovincial matches in August to go up to Heather Clarke’s funeral in Portrush, where he fell into a long, emotional embrace with Clarke as he handed him a Mass card at the door of the church. The pair have know each other for more than seven years now, first meeting on McIlroy’s tenth birthday in May 1999.

“My Dad brought be to Royal Portrush for a game and Darren was there practising with Paddy Gribben,” McIlroy recalls. “I was chipping and putting and he just said, keep chipping and putting. I met him again at the Darren Clarke Foundation in 2002, when I was 13. He says, ‘Rory come here. Anything you want or need, just give me a call.’ And he handed me his number. A 13 year old and with Clarke’s number! It was quite special. I’m still afraid to ring him too much. He doesn’t need 17 year olds hassling him. But I do ring sometimes to ask for advice or just say congratulations when he has done well. He sent me a text after I won the Close and after I won the European Amateur. Every time he meets me he tells me to turn pro. He says, ‘You’re travelling so much all over the world, you might as well do it for money.’ But I can wait.”

As for their match at Queenwood, McIlroy explains: “If I beat Darren he had to pay me £50 and if he beat me I didn’t lose money. I was two up after six, playing really well but he hit me with five birdies in seven holes and beat me 4 and 3. What can you do with that? I wouldn’t give him a three foot putt and he’s say, you can’t be serious. So then he wouldn’t give me anything either for the rest of the day.

“He’s more like a mate than anything else. I know him pretty well now and to be honest, he is a role model. My Mum and Dad have been huge role models for me and they’ve made so many sacrifices for me to help me get to where I am - not going to holidays some years to help me play in golf tournaments. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

McIlroy’s Mum is convinced that Clarke took McIlroy on the grand tour to show his young protege what he could have if he worked hard and there is a steely resolve in her son’s voice when he talks of his ambitions.

“The most nervous I’ve ever been was for my driving test. More nervous than tie holes in the west or anything else I’ve ever had on the golf course. It was frightening how nervous I was. I do get a little nervous on the first tee sometimes, but I do enjoy it, especially when it’s tight. That’s what I practice for. I don’t practice to get beat.

“I can’t wait. I really can’t wait to turn pro and have a crack at it. I can’t wait to have my independence and my own house. I’d live at home here in Northern Ireland for the first few years. Holywood is a nice area. I am already looking at some property here for this time next year.”

The son of Catholics, McIlroy never experienced the Troubles that ripped the province apart in the 1970s and 80s. He is not political but like former European No 1 Rafferty, he identifies himself as British and Northern Irish.

“I would identify myself as British,” he says. “I’m from Northern Ireland so I’m a British citizen and I’ve got a British passport. I’m Northern Irish but I can have an Irish passport if I want. It’s just easier to say it. I didn’t really have any experience of all the troubles. Holywood is a quiet area and nothing really goes on.”

McIlroy’s father is the bar manager at Holywood Golf Club and he’s so confident that his son will make it that he and three of his friends have bet £400 at 500-1 that he will win the British Open before he is 25.

“We put the bet on when he was 15,” Gerry says with a smile. “They would only let us lay £400 - £100 each. But the bookies are cottoning on to Rory since he made the cut in the Mastercard Masters in Australia last year. They were laying 13-2 that he wouldn’t make the cut. Eastwoods are laying him 2-1 to make the cut in the Australian Open this year. They are cottoning on to him.”

As it turned out, McIlroy made the cut with five shots to spare in his eighth start in a professional event. In the 2005 Dubai Desert Classic, where Tiger Woods won the title, he missed out by just one stroke. But he has high hopes for a return visit to the Emirates in February and his father reckons the improvements will be there for all to see.

“He is more comfortable now with the pro game,” Gerry says as he gets on with his work behind the bar. “He is a hell of a lot different. At the Forest of Arden there in 2005, when he played his first professional event in the British Masters, he was looking around at scoreboards and got star-struck. He was only 15. You can see he is a better player now. But there is no guarantee whatsoever. You could be good this year and bad next year. But Rory seems pretty confident.

“His course management has come on leaps and bounds. He is a wee bit older now. People still tend to forget that he is only 17. That is very young for a golfer. I think one of the best things that happened to him was not getting on that Walker Cup team in 2005. There was a lot of hype that he should have been on it. If Rory had made the Walker Cup he would have wanted to turn pro far too young. Next year will be just right for him.”

When Padraig Harrington turned professional in 1996, he said he would have been happy to be a journeyman. But McIlroy has far loftier ambitions.

“I’ve never met him, but I think Padraig was probably being modest,” McIlroy says. “I want to win Majors, play in Ryder Cups and win Orders of Merit. All of that. There is no point in saying I want to be journeyman. I don’t want to finish top 60 in the order of merit every year. I want to go out and win, play the best I can and go on from there.

“Obviously you need to get into the top 50 in the world to play in majors and I hope to do that after the first three or four years. I feel my game is far stronger now than even 12 months ago. When I was younger I was quite small and I was trying to hit the ball as far as I could. I realise now that I don’t have to do that. You don’t have to hit it 315 off the tee all the time. I just have to put my ball in the best position.

“If you hit it in the middle of 18 greens you are going to have 18 birdie opportunities and you are bound to take advantage of three or four of them. It is not rocket science this ol’ golf game. It is about being smart. It is not about being flash, though you have to be in a few situations. But if you look at someone who doesn’t hit it that good - someone like Tim Clark - but is still a great player. He isn’t long and doesn’t chip it that good but he is up there. Second in the Masters last year.

“And Scott Verplank. He’s really short and he still gets it round. There’s a lot of people like that. That’s the thing I realized when I played in some of the European Tour events. They don’t hit it any better than I do or any of the other top amateurs. The difference is in the short game and experience. It’s wedge, putter and course management. They know when to go at a flag and when not to. All that comes with experience.”

His old amateur sparring partner Fisher signed with IMG and Nike, just a week after earning his card at the Qualifying School, for an undisclosed sum that will allow him to play on tour with no money worries for the foreseeable future.

What McIlroy can command in terms of endorsements remains to be seen but his trajectory and high profile would suggest that he will not be scrambling for sponsors if he follows in Fishers footsteps and earns his tour card next November.

McIlroy’s attitude is that if Ollie Fisher can do it then so can he, though he admits that it won’t be easy.

“I was looking at it and I worked out that if you an average of two and a half under for every round over the three stages, you will get your tour card,” he says. “That’s all you need to do. When I say that’s all, I don’t mean it’s going to be easy. It’s tough. Obviously final stage is a big grind. You are not going to play well all six days. But I can’t remember anyone winning before this year with more than 10 under par.

“Do I think Ollie is a better player than I am? No. He is a different type of player. He won the St Andrews Links this year, he’s played Walker Cup and I haven’t. But he is no better than any aspect of his game than I am. I didn’t play St Andrews Links, he won. He didn’t play the European Amateur, I won. I finished better than him at Lytham and Brabazon this year. He finished ahead of me at the Eisenhower.”

McIlroy has never met Padraig Harrington, but he sees no reason why he can’t go on and emulate the Dubliner and make a success of his life in the professional game.

“To get to the level of Padraig Harrington is all about consistency and experience. I am not going to come out and say Padraig is no better a player than I am, because it is obviously not true. But there is not much difference between a top amateur and an average to good tour pro. It is not that much of a difference.

“Obviously you just need to become comfortable in the environment of playing week in and week out n the European Tour. Once you become comfortable and get a few results under your belt, you can just go on from there. Nick Dougherty turned pro after the Walker Cup, went to Q School, finished third, got his card and was Rookie of the Year. You have just got to get as much experience as you can the first year.

“Playing in these professional events so far means I will feel more comfortable when I get out there, hopefully. I don’t pay too much attention to what other guys are doing on the range. They don’t hit it much better than what I do and I hit it well. It is just a matter of going out and playing consistently and smartly, hitting fairways and greens and taking your chances when they come.

“I don’t work with anyone on the mental game. I read Bob Rotella books but it is all common sense. I know that I play my best golf when I take one shot at a time.

In the 61 I shot at Portrush, coming down the last eight or nine holes I just thought about the shot in front of me. I am going to hit a seven iron. I am going to draw it off that bunker. Its’ going to roll that way. Putt. Right edge. Firm. It was just shot by shot by shot. It wasn’t: ‘I’ve got this to go six or seven under’ or whatever.

“That’s why I did well and won in Italy in the European Amateur. I didn’t think about my score. I went out the first round and shot eight under and then the second round four under. Then I was seven shots clear after nine holes in the third round and I sort of started to think about it and dropped two coming in. And then I sort of got it together again and took it one shot at a time. That’s when everyone plays their best golf. When you just get out of your own way and let it happen.”

And with that he popped off to see his girlfriend. School was out.