McIlroy: Holywood star with box-office appeal
McIlroy, 28, needs just the Masters to complete the set of all four major titles, an honor held by only Woods and four others.
That a resurgent Woods will be one of McIlroy’s chief rivals at Augusta next week adds significant spice to the narrative.
But then McIlroy, the grinning, curly-haired kid from Holywood, Northern Ireland, has always been box office.
Chipping golf balls into a washing machine on a TV talk show after winning the World U10 Championship was just the start.
McIlroy grew up “fixated” by golf from a young age, learning the game through his Dad at the unassuming Holywood Golf Club outside Belfast. He’d cry when he was told it was time to go home.
His idol was Woods, who clinched his breakthrough 1997 Masters win when Rory was not quite eight.
“I wrote a letter at nine saying that one day hopefully I’d be competing against him,” McIlroy said in a documentary commissioned for the Open Championship.
“Sometimes those things turn into reality and luckily for me it did.”
But luck didn’t really come into it. Innate talent, “passion for the game,” and the dedication of his parents Rosie and Gerry, working multiple jobs and pouring “every penny” into their only child’s obsession, were the foundations for a career which has so far yielded four major titles and north of $50 million in prize money.
“The word was this kid from Holywood was a bit extra special,” says CNN Living Golf host Shane O’Donoghue, who first saw McIlroy in action in 2004.
“He’d just turned 14 and was clearly very different. He looked like a cherubic little boy but played with an exuberance that was totally different. It was like watching a virtuoso. I very quickly christened him Northern Ireland’s Mozart, in golf terms.”
The Irishman has seen him grow from precocious talent and child prodigy, to the boy who would be king and then global superstar, based in Florida with the huge mansion, fast cars and private jet.
“He was a nice, normal kid. He hasn’t changed,” adds O’Donoghue. “Circumstances have changed phenomenally around him and he’s had to deal with all of that but he’s still the same Rory. At the heart of it he’s still Gerry and Rosie’s boy.”
Despite the fame, wealth and celebrity status, the Holywood star is still very grounded with a close coterie of school friends. When he parted company with long-time caddie JP Fitzgerald in 2017 he turned to best mate Harry Diamond to shoulder the bag. He’s had the same coach, former Holywood pro Michael Bannon, since he began the game using cut-down clubs.
Though McIlroy was well known on the amateur circuit, he came to wider prominence as a chirpy, chubby 18-year-old at the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie, where he tied for third after the first round, bettering the then 12-time major champion Woods by one shot.
He turned pro the day after the Walker Cup, the amateur version of the Ryder Cup, that September.
Joining the paid ranks was like adding a spark to rocket fuel.
He scored his first win as a 19-year-old in Dubai in February 2009, and first triumphed on the PGA Tour in May 2010, becoming the first player since Woods to win before his 21st birthday.
Within five years of turning pro he was world No. 1.
But McIlroy’s professional career has been punctuated more by bursts of brilliance than the relentless domination of Woods in his heyday. McIlroy’s mojo has occasionally gone walkabout when life gets in the way of what was once pure pleasure.
“He is a bit mercurial but that’s part of his normality,” says O’Donoghue. “He’s not a robot, he is an artist.
“He will have down times, he will have the odd disaster, but my God, the highs more than make up for it because when he is on he’s different class.”
McIlroy’s trajectory was on collision course for a first major title, and for 63 holes of the 2011 Masters it looked like a coronation.
He led by four heading into the final day, and still held a one-shot cushion on the 10th tee.
What followed was an agonizing and public disintegration.
He pulled his drive into the woods, and plunged into a downward spiral, dropping six shots in three holes. Shell-shocked, he carded 80. “I don’t think I can put it down to anything else than part of the learning curve,” he said ruefully at the time.
Many observers thought the experience could scar him for life.
McIlroy proved otherwise, smashing a host of records as he clinched the US Open at Congressional two months later.
“It was a sensational rebound,” says O’Donoghue.
“He was approachable, accessible, attractive, CEOs wanted to be around him, kids wanted to be like him, men wanted to be his friend and woman wanted to either mother him or adore him. He just had the X factor.”