Once a boy wonder, Rory McIlroy tells Ben Isaacs how he became the man we all want to be
Rory McIlroy is thinking back and laughing: “Yeah, I remember when he taught me how to pull a pint.” My life doesn’t have a lot in common with Rory McIlroy’s (although neither of us has won the Masters – we’ll get to that later), but as our time together ends we’ve made a connection: during our formative years both our fathers worked long hours in bars, making those workplaces unlikely centres of learning for us.
He’s always been a quick learner. He could hit a golf ball 40 yards when he was just two years old. Inspired by his father, Gerry – a talented amateur golfer – McIlroy became obsessed with the sport. As he grew older, age-range championship wins came thick and fast.
His uncle Brian says that when Rory was nine, the confident lad sent a letter to Tiger Woods warning him that he was gunning for him. If the only letters you sent at that age were to Father Christmas, you have our permission to feel inadequate right now.
And gunning for him he is. McIlroy is on a run of form that could see him have one of the greatest summers in golf history, even surpassing Tiger’s phenomenal run in 2000. McIlroy is destroying the opposition in tournaments all over the world, and there are three Majors over the next few months where he will be the man to beat. The afternoon before we sit down to talk in a London hotel, he was recording a course record 21 score en route to a seven-stroke win at the Wells Fargo Championship in North Carolina (prize: $1.278m). Calling him the best golfer in the world doesn’t do him justice. He’s the hottest sportsman on the planet.
“There are videos of me at nine or 10 saying I want to be the best in the world,” he says. ”I had a goal and a dream. I had a lot of confidence when I was younger, but when I got into my late teens that dipped a bit, just because I was becoming more mature and realistic. Then, once I went on the tour for a couple of years and found my feet, that’s when I felt I could do something special in this game.”
To get to that point, the gifted McIlroy still needed expert tuition beyond his father’s know-how. And that didn’t come cheap for his parents. But he always knew he wouldn’t let them down. “I guess when you’re younger you don’t realise what your parents do for you, or at least I didn’t realise that working 90 hours a week wasn’t normal,” admits McIlroy. “But there was never a doubt in my mind. What my mum and dad said was they wanted to give me the best opportunity to maybe try to make it. I would never be able to repay my mum and dad – I can’t do for them what they did for me.”
It’s telling that despite them not needing to work now and that he can “look after them”, McIlroy – an only child – still feels it’s a debt to his parents he can never repay. He’s only just celebrated his 26th birthday, but he’s mature beyond his years, and an obsession with the material riches of elite sport has passed him by. He says the fact that so much money is paid out for hitting a small ball is “nuts” and doesn’t want to be defined by it. “The money’s nice [it’s estimated he earns nearly £1m a week], but at this point it’s irrelevant – it’s about trying to make some sort of history and put your name in the record books. At the start you’re playing for a living, it’s your job so of course money comes into it, it’s a part of life – you need to make money to live.”
He sees golf as a job, but a job he loves, and one that he’s acutely aware has created an incredible life for him. So despite being in the presence of greatness, I’m struck by how normal he is. At one point I need to move a small side table closer to my chair and he leaps up to help. It was a totally unnecessary gesture but speaks of the man he’s become. “One thing I’ve taken from my dad is how he treats people. He’s always so nice, whether he knows them or not; treats everyone the same no matter who they are, what they do. He’s the same person to everyone. It’s not something he told me to do, it’s just something I’ve seen him do. I’ve tried to incorporate it into my life – no matter what walk of life someone’s in, you treat them the same and you’re courteous.”
Thankfully for sport fans, this courtesy doesn’t extend to letting other people win (although he makes it clear “golf is the only thing I’m competitive at”). The ‘niceness’ isn’t a facade, but it’s complemented by a steely resolve to become the man and the champion he wants to be. I want to know if he thinks about winning 19 Majors, thus surpassing Jack Nicklaus’s 18 and Tiger Woods’ 14 and becoming the most successful golfer ever. “Yes, but I’ve not set it as a goal. I’m happy with where I am at the minute, and at the age of 26 [four Majors so far] I’m in a good position to get some more. I think if you set a target on Majors, you put a burden on yourself.”
Ah, burdens. The Masters is the only Major McIlroy hasn’t won (he let a four-shot lead slip in 2011) – a victory in Augusta at some point in his career would make him one of just six players to have achieved the ‘Career Grand Slam’. Is the lack of a winner’s green jacket a burden, I ask. McIlroy furrows his brow in thought. He goes to speak, then inhales, then closes his mouth to think some more. For a split second I wonder if he regrets helping me with the table. Eventually he speaks: “The Masters... I... I definitely feel after the Masters this year there was a weight lifted off my shoulders [coming fourth and finishing 12 under]. If I didn’t win the Masters by the end of my career I’d be very disappointed."
The 2016 Masters are a long way off and the Ulsterman is not looking past the upcoming big ones: The US Open in June, The Open Championship in July and the US PGA Championship in August. “It’s great that I’m playing so well at the minute, but I feel like I’ve finally learned how to sustain this sort of form for long periods of time. I don’t want to look too far in the future, but I think I can replicate what I did last year [two Majors and player of the year on both the European and PGA Tours, among other achievements]. I’ve got two really good chances with Majors coming up: The Open Championship at St Andrews and the PGA at Whistling Straits, because they’re two courses I’ve played well at before, but the US Open is a bit of an unknown because we’ve never been there [Chambers Bay] before.”
Aetting from A to B
A hectic few months lie ahead, what with the Majors and other tour events sandwiched between them. So it’s understandable that when I ask him about the downsides of being a pro golfer he instantly says “the travel”, before correcting himself. I don’t think he wants to be seen as the sort of person who complains about flying in a private jet (he’s started answering fan questions via Periscope on these journeys).
“Well, it’s not the travel – the travel’s fine,” he says, “but being away from home for so long. I’m a real home bird. Not necessarily in terms of back to Northern Ireland, but being at home wherever home is, say in Florida – that’s what I love. Being back in my own bed. That’s what I do on my weeks off, rather than going on holiday.” I say that this must feel like a holiday. He springs forward in his seat. “Yeah, it does! Going home does feel like a holiday,” he laughs. So it should, considering the stuff he gets up to there. “I live on the water in Florida and I’ve got jet skis, so I like to take them out, give them a rip around,” he admits slightly sheepishly.
About that private jet. I want him to make the rest of us mugs who have to rely on airlines feel better. Help us out here, Rory. There must be something that’s bad about the use of a private plane? Surely. “Not that I can think of,” he laughs. “It’s so beneficial for us because it lets you get from A to B so quickly. You don’t have to deal with the airports. It’s a big outlay, but helps keep your body right. We worked out that it helps me spend an extra 20 days at home each year. If you feel fresher when you arrive at a tournament it pays for itself, in a way."
It’s evident that McIlroy would be the same sort of man even without golf. But he has no idea what sort of career he would have. “I don’t know where my life would’ve gone without golf,” he admits. “I left school at 16 with [pauses] not many qualifications. But I was smart enough – I did enough to get by – I was interested in a few subjects. I probably would’ve done something to do with sport, or the body. I was always very interested in the body – how it worked and functioned – so physiotherapy, sports science and sports medicine were the sort of things that interested me quite a lot. I played a lot of golf, obviously, but I did all the other stuff as well, so I don’t feel like I missed out on a normal childhood. I still had the nights out with my mates. I still did all the things that teenagers do; the mistakes that they make.
I probably missed out on going to university, but apart from that I think I had a really normal upbringing. I’ve got two really great parents, I’ve got good friends from back home who’ve known me since before any of this ever happened. It keeps me grounded. I’d much rather go home and hang out with my mates I’ve know for 20 years than go to some red carpet events."
Rory the role model
I ask if he’d swap his position in the golf world to be the star player for his beloved Manchester United. He instantly shakes his head. “Premier League footballers are under so much scrutiny. I’ve still got a tiny bit of anonymity, but they just don’t have it. I’m very appreciative of what I have. I think that comes from my parents. Now I’m in a position where I’m able to help others. I’ve got the Irish Open coming up and my foundation is hosting it, so we’ve been able to help the Cancer Fund For Children in Northern Ireland over the past few years. I know the people who inspired me in my life, and to think I could be like that and inspire the next generation or help youngsters is a pretty cool position to be in. It’s made me responsible. I take being a role model seriously and try to go about it the right way.”
As we get ready to go our separate ways he stands up, shakes my hand and stretches. I resist the temptation to put the side table back (why deprive him of the simple pleasure of doing it himself?) and we make some small talk about our dads’ jobs while members of his team rush around us getting things ready for a photoshoot. I’ve no idea how good McIlroy’s pint-pulling skills are, but I’d put good money on him becoming an expert very quickly, if he put his mind to it. But I think he’s doing all right at this golf thing for now, don’t you?
Rory McIlroy came to Niketown London to energise fans around Nike Golf innovation, and open a new Nike Golf experience
[Images: Rex Features]