Rory McIlroy: The Holywood star with box-office appeal

CNN  — 

As a nine-year-old he wrote to Tiger Woods saying he was “coming to get him,” but now Rory McIlroy stands on the brink of joining his hero as a true legend of the game.

McIlroy, 29, needs just the Masters to complete the set of all four major titles, an honor held by only Woods and four others.

He’s finished inside the top 10 in each of the past five years, and told CNN’s Living Golf he “truly believes it will happen.”

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.”

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Golf major wins Woods Nicklaus Spieth McIlroy


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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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But the boom-or-bust cycle continued. That summer he coped badly with wild weather in the Open at Royal St George’s, telling reporters: “I’m not a fan of golf tournaments predicted so much by the weather, it’s not my sort of golf.”

It was blunt and honest, and created a stir. “He’s never lost that boyish quality and never lost the quality of just telling it like it is. It gets him into trouble occasionally but the great ones are all a bit dogged in their opinions and views,” says O’Donoghue.

Victory back in the warmth of Florida the following March took McIlroy to the world No. 1 spot for the first time at the age of 22.

That summer he landed a second major with the US PGA title in another record-breaking performance. He ended the season as the leading money winner on both the European and PGA Tours and was the game’s hottest property.

But he hadn’t lost his impishness. A mess-up with his alarm clock meant he was nearly late for his tee time on the final day of the Ryder Cup and needed a police escort to reach the course. He still won his match against Keegan Bradley as Europe won the “Miracle of Medinah.”

McIlroy’s stock was sky high, and early in 2013 he signed a multimillion dollar deal to use Nike equipment and clothing.

Struggling to adapt, and having split from his management company, his form and confidence dipped.

At the Open that summer, McIlroy gave another honest assessment of his inner thoughts, describing himself as “brain dead” after a disastrous first round. “Sometimes I feel like I’m walking around out there and I’m unconscious,” he said.

“He’s breaking news even when he’s playing badly and a lot of that has to do with his authenticity,” says O’Donoghue.

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‘Unbelievable talent’

But McIlroy’s ability to enter a higher realm was in evidence in the aftermath of his split with fiancée Caroline Wozniacki, a former world No.1 tennis star from Denmark, in May 2014. Three days later he won the European Tour’s flagship BMW PGA Championship and then achieved his childhood dream, the Open Championship, at Hoylake in July.

His dominant win emulated Woods’ procession at Hoylake in 2006, and made him the only other player, alongside Woods, to win the silver medal and Claret Jug. He also became the first European to win three different majors, and he joined Woods and Nicklaus as only the third player to win three by 25.

Not only that, but Gerry McIlroy was able to collect on a bet he and three friends had struck back in 2004 at odds of 500-1 that the young Rory would win the Open “within the next 10 years.”

They each scooped £50,000.

Within a few weeks McIlroy won a World Golf Championship event and then his fourth major, the US PGA Championship.

“Rory is an unbelievable talent. I think Rory has an opportunity to win 15 or 20 majors or whatever he wants to do if he wants to keep playing. I love his swing,” Nicklaus told reporters afterward.

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The magic dust has since dried up, at least in majors. He won the PGA Tour’s season-long FedEx Cup in 2016, but a rib injury blew out much of 2017.

However, McIlroy used the time to get married to fiancée Erica Stoll and take stock of his life and career.

Refreshed, McIlroy’s mojo returned with victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in March amid the frenzy of Woods’ latest comeback.

At Augusta, however, he started the final day in the last pairing alongside eventual winner Patrick Reed but fell back to finish fifth, letting slip another chance to join Woods, Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen as bona fide legends of the game.

McIlroy has never claimed to be targeting the major haul of Woods, who in turn never hid his chase of Nicklaus’ 18 majors, but he does have his eyes on another target: the seven majors of Jersey man Harry Vardon.

“He wants to become Europe’s most successful golfer of all time,” says O’Donoghue.

If inspiration strikes, Woods might need to look at the figure roaring up in his rear view mirror.