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Next Tiger? Might be the man from Northern Ireland

By Steve Almasy, CNN
After winning the U.S. Open on Father's Day, 22-year-old Rory McIlroy celebrates with his dad.
After winning the U.S. Open on Father's Day, 22-year-old Rory McIlroy celebrates with his dad.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rory McIlroy, 22, hails from Northern Ireland, where he rose through the junior golf ranks
  • McIlroy bounced back from disappointment at the Masters to win the next major tournament
  • Some predict greatness for him, and he tells Piers Morgan he can be the best ever
  • McIlroy's family made sacrifices, with dad bartending among his several jobs

(CNN) -- On a hot April afternoon, young Rory McIlroy had the lead and only nine holes to play before he could become the Masters golf champion.

Just 24 hours later, the Northern Irishman would tweet a picture of himself and Charl Schwartzel on a jet, both smiling, and one of them wearing the famed green jacket awarded to the winner of the most revered golf title in the world.

It wasn't McIlroy.

For on that April Sunday, he had fallen apart, blown his lead big-time, shooting a horrendous 8-over-par 80. Schwartzel leaped over him and other contenders to win one of the most exciting Masters ever with birdies on the final four holes.

McIlroy's tumble started on the 10th hole, when he hit a tee shot like a public course duffer into the woods and ended up losing three strokes to par.

But after his very visible loss, the then-21-year-old didn't hide from defeat or from the press.

McIlroy's tee shot on the 10th hole at the Masters ended up near one of the cabins on the course.
McIlroy's tee shot on the 10th hole at the Masters ended up near one of the cabins on the course.

"I didn't handle [the adversity on the course] particularly well, obviously, but it was a character-building day, put it that way," he said that night. "I'll come out stronger for it."

Some of the media, impressed by his grace, trotted out the well-worn cliche: He has the talent, but time will tell if he has the stuff champions are made of.

It didn't take long for McIlroy to prove he does.

Two months later, in the next major golf tournament, he thoroughly dominated the U.S. Open field all four days, winning by an unheard-of eight shots.

"He's certainly captured everyone's imagination," said Gary Van Sickle, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com.

But Van Sickle warned it might be a little early to call McIlroy the next Tiger Woods, who won the Masters at age 21 after winning three U.S. amateur championships.

"I would hold off on handing him the crown just yet," he said of the No. 3-ranked player in the world. "But he's got a great swing, and he is impressive."

Comparisons are inevitable. Both started as very, very young players. Both appeared on a TV show as a prodigy -- Woods on Mike Douglas at age 3; McIlroy appearing on a Northern Ireland show at age 9. Both were beating older golfers while in their teens and winning many junior tournaments.

McIlroy talks about dealing with disaster

McIlroy told CNN's Piers Morgan that he sees only a few connections between himself and Woods.

"You know, at 22, we both had one major. He won a couple more times than I have in my career," McIlroy said. "But I mean I have to let other people make comparisons, because if I go -- am trying, you know, to chase his records -- I'll lose sight of what I need to do to actually -- to win tournaments."

And while trying to remain somewhat modest, he agreed with the assessment that he'll be mentioned in future discussions as the greatest ever.

"Yeah, I do. I do. But I don't really know if people want to hear that. I mean, I believe that myself. Yes," he told Morgan. "I'm very confident in my own abilities. I believe in myself. ...

"I said something a couple of days ago. I said, I'm not playing for money, I'm playing for a place in history."

Both Woods and Jack Nicklaus have predicted a very high place in history for McIlroy. After the Open win, Nicklaus, who's counseled McIlroy for several years, said, "He's humble when he ought to be and confident when he needs to be."

The mop-haired, freckled kid is very likeable, too, Van Sickle said, and not just because of his adorable looks. He's good people, too. It's isn't something put on for the fans now that he is rich and famous, the writer said. And it's not a recent development.

McIlroy was the lowest-scoring amateur at the 2007 British Open.
McIlroy was the lowest-scoring amateur at the 2007 British Open.

Van Sickle recalled asking the young man for an interview as he readied for the 2007 British Open, one of his first times in the media spotlight. Despite being pursued by the press, the then-18-year-old was like sure thing, whatever you need, no question is off limits. And he's still that same normal guy today, Van Sickle said.

The kind of fella who gets on a plane just after choking away the lead at the Masters and tells his buddy, the guy who won, to put on the green jacket because he wants to take a picture. That he tweets with the message: Flying to Malaysia with charl! Glad one of us has a green jacket on!!!

Or the kind of lad who goes to Haiti the week before the U.S. Open, finding a little life perspective to help his golf game.

McIlroy's success is no fluke, said Shane O'Donoghue, host of CNN's "Living Golf." His talent was obvious from the day McIlroy first picked up a club.

Which was when he was 2. And he hit the ball 40 yards.

It was his desire to be a great golfer that prompted his devoted parents, Gerry and Rosie, to get behind their prodigious child. They worked night shifts and two and three extra jobs to fund his ambitions. His dad often bartended at the Holywood Golf Club in County Down, where Rory would practice.

To this day, McIlroy never takes this support for granted, O'Donoghue said.

McIlroy has always been keen to point out that he was never pushed by his parents, that it was indeed him doing all the pushing, all the dreaming and, crucially, all the practice.

McIlroy on Irish golfing success

His father is a good golfer, too, and with uncles who are also low handicappers, there has always been a competitive arena among the McIlroy clan since the earliest days at Holywood. That's where Rory's sporting passion was fostered.

These days, McIlroy still often has family and friends nearby when he competes.

They won't have too far to travel when the British Open, the third major of the year, tees off Thursday in Kent, England, with McIlroy likely to be the betting and fan favorite.

"He's going to have the crowd behind him like they were for Tiger when he was winning everything," Van Sickle said. "It'll be a 'home game' for him. He's used to playing in that kind of weather, and he's going to have a big comfort zone. He'll be the favorite in the British Open for the next 10 years."

The Royal St. George's course is "quirky," Van Sickle said. It's where a brisk wind can take a shot that starts in the center of the fairway and push it into rough terrain or worse -- deep bunkers.

I'm not playing for money, I'm playing for a place in history
--Rory McIlroy
RELATED TOPICS
  • Golf
  • Rory McIlroy
  • British Open
  • Tiger Woods

If McIlroy wins again, no doubt his popularity among fans in Europe and the United States will take off exponentially. The question then becomes: Will he continue to play mostly on his home continent, or will he come to America, where the tournament paydays are much larger?

While it would disappoint PGA Tour officials, McIlroy will probably continue to play overseas, Van Sickle guessed. He can still play in eight to 10 tournaments in the U.S. (three majors and another handful of top-level tournaments) and still be a player whom advertisers will seek out. He already reportedly makes millions each year in endorsements and appearance fees.

But the injured Woods missed the U.S. Open and will also sit out the British. He also missed a good portion of 2010 because of his infidelity scandal. Golf's popularity has suffered with the absence of the player who was a strong favorite to win every tournament he played.

As Charley Hoffman told Alan Shipnuck of Sports Illustrated: "But for casual fans, I think they need a dominant player to focus on. They need to know what the story line is."

If you were a wagering person, Van Sickle said, the smart money would be on a 22-year-old kid from Northern Ireland with a poodle-like fro and a big smile. And a man who learned a very big lesson on a miserable day in April.