The Next Big Thing in golf comes in a small package. He's not the product of an American college juggernaut or fancy golf academy. He looks more like a member of the Brady Bunch than an elite, world-class player. Once you see Rory McIlroy let fly with a 300-yard drive or crisply smack an iron or deftly loft a pitch, there is little doubt this Northern Ireland youngster is the complete package, a player destined for success as was his idol, Tiger Woods.
"He has all the components to be the best player in the world," says Woods, the best player in the world. And Ernie Els, the three-time major winner and himself consistently among the world's best, has this to say: "I think we are looking at the next world No. 1 in him." What does McIlroy have to say about what people are saying about him: "You can't let those things sort of get into your head. But it's nice for those guys to say those things about me. It fills you with confidence that you're doing the right things. You still have to go out and play good golf at the end of the day."
McIlroy, all five foot, seven inches 160 pounds of him, has been playing plenty of good golf. At the age of 19 he won his first professional tournament, the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic.
That win, along with good steady play last season, helped him break into the Top 20 in the world golf rankings. As a result, he played in his first Masters Tournament as well as gracing Sports Illustrated's cover for the Masters preview. His surprisingly powerful swing emanates from an unimposing body, in the manner of the Wee Welshman, Ian Woosnam. That power, combined with a wicked short game, puts him decidedly on the trail of golf's elite.
Mark O'Meara, mentor to Tiger Woods as a teenager and young professional, knows what he is looking at. "He's better than Tiger was at 19," says O'Meara. "There's no reason why he can't win a major championship. He's got it." Where did he get it?
This tousled-hair 20-year-old, whose cap can barely contain his unruly locks, caught the golf bug growing up in Holywood, Northern Ireland, on the outskirts of Belfast. His father, Gerry, a scratch player, was a bar manager, his mother, Rosie, a worker at the 3M factory. Rory, their only child, who was hitting a ball with a cut down club at the age of two and was a junior member at the Holywood Golf Club at age eight, was winning big Irish amateur tournaments by age 15. He was so young, talented and dedicated to becoming a world-class player that his father started working three jobs to support his career and even built a 1,200-square-foot, flood-lit green in the family's backyard.
Michael Bannon, the pro at the Bangor Golf Club and Rory's coach since he was eight years old, saw in him talent and desire that would not be denied. "He could do things that others couldn't," says Bannon. "He could shape shots and had a real feel for the game. His mechanics were not all that brilliant, but he definitely was going to get better. He had a real tunnel vision for the game. Would spend hours and hours practicing, you have no idea. His parents would want to sit down for dinner on Sunday and have a bit of rest and he would tell them he had to go to the range and hit balls. They weren't exactly pushing him to do this. He had his own drive."
By the time he was 12, he had come to the attention of Darren Clarke, who would become a mentor to him and invite him to his Darren Clarke Foundation Academy, which helps promising young golfers in Northern Ireland. He introduced Rory and his parents to Chubby Chandler, the head of International Sports Management, the agency that manages Clarke, Ernie Els and Lee Westwood, and now is directing McIlroy's career.
"He stood out straightaway," says Clarke. "He didn't hit quite as far as he hits it now, but he still hit it pretty hard when he was 12. As a professional you can always spot someone who has got the talent but you don't know who is going to make it and who is not going to make it. I pretty much knew what he was doing from a very young age.
"The path he chose to tread was chosen at a very young age," said Clarke. "That boils down to the whole Tiger thing. Because of Tiger, this is what he does, he practices this way, he works out."
McIlroy has always been precocious, to say the least. At age nine he won a boys' world title. At 15, he became the youngest player to win the West of Ireland Championship. At 16, he was the youngest winner of the Irish Close Championship. He shot a 61 at the magnificent Royal Portrush, smashing the course record. At 18, he qualified for his European Tour card faster than anyone had ever done. He cracked the world Top 50, and had salted away more than a million Euros in purse money. He also already had sponsorship deals.
"I know I have packed in a lot for the age I am," McIlroy told Ireland's Sunday Tribune before he turned 20 recently. "I've traveled the world playing golf and I think that's why at quite a young age I have been able to learn from the older guys. I think one of the reasons I've done OK this year is that for as long as I've been playing, I've always been the youngest person to do this or that. I've always played with people who are older than me and that's made me a very mature 19-year-old."
There is a word that comes up often when others talk of McIlroy—fearless. "By the age of 11 he was starting to show how much better he was than the others," says Bannon. "He was a small boy, but he was winning matches against the bigger lads. There was absolutely no fear in him."
Pat Murray is the manager of the Limerick Golf Club and a fine player who came up against the 13-year-old McIlroy and was immediately impressed. "He was phenomenal," says Murray. "He hit it longer than the men. He had a great short game, great head for the game. He was absolutely fearless. He'd go for every flag and worry about the consequences later and there were seldom any great consequences. And he was a very nice lad on top of it all. No arrogance or cockiness. He's a very good team player. He's not afraid to say what he has to say, and he will help others. He's not like some that when they are finished with the golf they are off to bed and you don't see them until the morning. He likes to have fun with the lads."
P.J. Collins, president of the Irish Golf Union and a fellow Ulsterman, has seen all the top contemporary Irish players, Clarke, Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley.
"Rory's far ahead of them at this age," says Collins. "Darren Clarke was an impressive ball striker at Rory's age, but he didn't have the short game. I was amazed at how Rory could maneuver the ball at an early age. I remember him hitting a 2-iron into a strong wind at the Island Golf Club, how he held the ball into the wind. For someone that age to do that, it was very impressive. He's by far the best we've had in years. He already had his own coach, so you don't fix what isn't broken."
And, of course, he also sees McIlroy as undaunted. "He plays very fast, just gets on with it," says Collins. "He sees the shot, hits and deals with the consequences later. Absolutely fearless. He's an aggressive player and has a charming bouncy personality. He's not a clone."
No, that he is not. And he is still capable of being a teenager and doing what normal teens do. He enjoys music, takes his girlfriend to The Box, a nightclub in Belfast he describes as "sweaty," enjoys watching the local rugby clubs and is a fan of the Manchester United soccer team.
Unlike Woods, who lives in a bubble in Orlando and moves about his world guardedly, McIlroy still revels in the everyday life of Northern Ireland. "This is the great thing about Northern Ireland," he says. "I walk down the street and people stop me and say things like, 'I know you. You're that wee golfer, aren't you?' I say, 'Yeah, that's me.' They say, 'Keep it up, wee man.' It's very funny and that's why I want to stay here as long as possible. I'd hate to lose all that. Tiger is amazing but look at the things he can't do. He can't go to the cinema or walk to the shops. I don't know if I'd want to give that up to be like him."
McIlroy was a decent student at Sullivan Upper School, but even his principal knew that his destiny lay not in the academic corridors but in the manicured fairways of the world. "We cut him a lot of slack purely because he was so talented and it was clear from the early days that golf was his future," says John Stevenson, the principal. "His career was going to be golf and the last thing I wanted to do was have his school get in the way of this young man's future."
Still, so much of his life centers on learning to be a better player. Like Woods, he is a tireless worker and curious about every aspect of the game. At last year's Omega Masters in Switzerland, he learned two things: how to deal with losing a final-day, four-shot lead that would delay his first European Tour victory; and: how to play better bunker shots. It's that bunker lesson that endures.
He saw that the Australian Brett Rumford, considered one of the world's finest bunker players, was practicing his specialty. He introduced himself, sat down behind him, and watched shot after shot, taking mental notes on Rumford's stance, ball position, swing rhythm, grip, hand action. It's the sort of thing he's done since he was eight, the sort of commitment to the game he made at that age, much in the same way as Tiger Woods.
"My dad's a scratch golfer and I've got the knack for seeing something and then replicating it," says McIlroy. "I saw my dad swing a club and I worked out how to do the same thing."
As his coach, Bannon no longer sees a reason to do much with McIlroy's swing other than to make sure he maintains his efficiency. "I'm just checking to make sure he's where he needs to be," says Bannon. "I know that Sam Torrance said after he saw him that he wouldn't change a thing. You never know if his body changes anymore as he grows where you might do something. Rory also works out a lot and has a very strong core. It's just a wonderfully efficient swing, and he's been hitting the ball in the middle of the clubface every swing since at least the age of 12. That's got to be a god-given talent."
McIlroy's stage seems to be the world of golf, not some place that will be defined by the PGA Tour. Early this year, Chubby Chandler, was quite clear that he's looking for opportunities for McIlroy worldwide and that McIlroy has no reason to accept a specially offered PGA Tour card.
"There's absolutely no point in him taking out his PGA Tour card," explains Chandler at the Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson. "Suddenly he's got to play 15 tournaments. Suddenly they start dictating to you. Rory's going to be young for a while yet and he's going to want to go home and have a bit of time out with his pals. Money's not the issue. "And why does it have to be America? The players to watch are Danny Lee [New Zealand] and Ryo Ishikawa [Japan]. They are the two huge stars coming up because of their connection with Asia. So America doesn't really matter, and if Rory ends up with a rivalry with Ishikawa, then that's huge."
Success doesn't seem to have spoiled Rory McIlroy, though at some point it will change his life. He seems to know and accept this, but at the same time, he seems as determined to hold onto his roots as he is to become one of the best players in the world.
"It's going to be hard," says McIlroy. "But I won't ever forget my mum worked in a factory in Bangor for 15 years and she did night shifts because the extra money helped fund my golf. My dad managed a bar in Holywood during the day and he looked after a sports club in Belfast. They did it for me.
" They are probably prouder of the way they've brought me up than for anything I've done on the golf course. My mum is very much like that. She wouldn't care if I shot 66 or 86 as long as I did it with dignity."
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.