Rory McIlroy, the Celtic Tiger Roars
Golf legend Jack Nicklaus 'likes his moxie', but the Holywood golfer isn't finished yet
Somewhere in Holywood Golf Club there is a card signed by a 12-year old that reads: ‘Rory McIlroy, Open Champion’.
Ten years later, that lifetime ambition is a very real possibility after the 22 year old stormed to a maiden major victory at the United States Open in Bethedesa, Maryland.
It was a win that gave Northern Ireland back-to-back successes after Rathmore’s Graham McDowell brought the trophy home from Pebble Beach, California in 2010.
'All I wanted to do was play golf when I was growing up. I wanted to become the best that I could be. I probably said back then, "I want to try to become the best in the world",' said McIlroy, at this post tournament press conference.
'I’m on my way to trying to do that. But to sit here at 22-years old as a major champion, it’s a very nice feeling, and I’m sure it will take a little bit of time to sink in. It’s just fantastic.'
That’s what most of the world seems to think as well – even among those who don’t know a nine iron from a putter or think that a wedge is just something to keep a door open.
An acquaintance of mine overheard two older men chatting in a newspaper shop in Lurgan on Monday. It was obvious to him that they were not familiar with the finer details of golf. 'Did thon' boy win thon' thing in America?,' asked the first man. 'He did surely,' replied the other. 'He won her handy.'
And that is putting it mildly. McIlroy’s performance, in which he blew away the rest of the field to finish his four rounds on 16 under par and eight strokes ahead of runner up Jason Day, has made America take him to their hearts. Particularly after the disaster of the US Masters in Augusta in April, where McIlroy’s vulnerability was so publicly exposed.
The world watched as Rory’s expected walk up the final fairway to collect the famous green jacket turned into a disaster. His game collapsed and a four shot lead ended with a round of 80 and 15th place overall.
While his confidence took a severe battering, McIlroy’s assertion that he would bounce back and that there would be other days, showed the strength of his character. And all of that experience was put to good use at the Congressional Country Club last weekend.
'I felt like I got over the Masters pretty quickly. I kept telling you guys that, and I don’t know if you believed me or not. But here you go, nice to prove some people wrong. I was very honest with myself and I knew what I needed to do differently,' reflected the new champion on Sunday night.
'And that was the thing. I had a clear picture in my mind of what I needed to do and where my focus needed to be when I got myself in that position again. Luckily enough for me, I was able to get in that position, in the major right after Augusta.
'To be able to finish it off the way I did, it just tells me that I learned from it and I’ve moved on. And now I’ve got this, I can go ahead and concentrate on getting some more.'
Few would deny McIlroy the right to reap the benefits from a talent that was first recognized by his parents Gerry and Rosie when they presented their 18-month old toddler with his first cut-down club. The path between his home in Holywood and the nearby golf course would become well worn, as McIlroy set his sights on the career he was predestined to follow.
Success at the World under ten Championships in Florida was a taste of things to come. In 2004, McIlroy was a member of the winning Junior Ryder Cup team and the following year, his winning of the West of Ireland and Irish Close championships brought him under the gaze of the wider public.
The European Amateur title in 2006, a place in the Walker Cup team and the silver medal for finishing best amateur at The Open in Carnoustie in 2007 confirmed that he had the game to suit the professional circuit.
McIlroy’s professional debut came at the 2007 British Masters, the day after his 17th birthday, where he finished joint 42nd. The first tour victory, achieved at the Dubai Desert Classic in February 2009, took him to 16th place in the world rankings.
Quail Hollow in North Carolina was the scene of his first PGA tour win last year, and he was a member of the European Ryder Cup team that won back the trophy from the United States at Celtic Manor in Wales.
There is a sense that the golfing world is moving in a new direction, in what some regard as the post-Tiger Woods era. McIlroy is being proclaimed as the new Celtic Tiger (although he would be cautious about describing Woods as being a spent force) and his name is what big brand sponsors want to own. His future earnings can be measured in the billions.
McIlroy would be the first to acknowledge that one victory in a major leaves him a long way behind the 18 major titles that Jack Nicklaus won in his distinguished career. However, the praise that Nicklaus gave McIlroy after the US Open is bound to have a positive impact.
'I think this kid’s going to have a great career – I don’t think there’s any question about it,' affirmed the Golden Bear. 'He’s humble when he needs to be humble, and confident when he needs to be confident. I like his moxie – he’s cocksure, and you’ve got to have that.'
It takes a lot to impress the great Australian golfer Greg Norman, but he was so taken by what he witnessed at Congressional that he texted the American broadcaster NBC saying, 'Europe lost a genius this year (Seve Ballesteros), but has found his replacement. Pure genius and a display of the most natural golf ability we’ve seen in a very, very long time.'
And when the final stroke is played next month at Sandwich in Kent, it could be that the signature written on the last card will state Rory McIlroy, Open Champion.