Home support helps young Holywood star to keep feet on ground
"CATCH yourself on!" – the colloquial phrase people in the North direct at those they suspect have let their egos get the better of them.
That phrase, and the peer pressure it describes of not getting too big for one's boots, offers a vital clue to how McIlroy has managed to juggle the expectations of possibly being golf 's Next Big Thing without taking on the surliness of Tiger Woods at his worst.
The prodigious talent has big ambitions, big hair but, so far, no big head.
When he finally wins his first major – perhaps at this week's US Open – and his earnings go from merely huge to ridiculously stratospheric, the expectations behind that phrase also explain why those who know McIlroy think they'll still be bumping into him at normal places like the Dirty Duck Ale House in Holywood, perhaps sinking a pint and a plate of sticky toffee pudding while gazing out at the choppy waters of Belfast Lough.
From his uncle, friends, his swing coach and former school headmaster, the verdict is unanimous: even as his fame and wealth rocket skyward faster than a tee-shot, McIlroy hasn't really changed.
Which means that if his uncle, Colm, teases McIlroy with a cheeky text message after he's flopped at a tournament, the young star takes it with the humour with which it is intended, not with a “Don't you know who I am?” sulk.
“He would text back, ‘Well, I'm lying in a five-star hotel. What are you doing?'“ Colm says, laughing. “He's changed very little.
“There are obviously things you have to change, you know? There are a lot of those hangerson now.
“But, you know, family-wise and friends-wise, you couldn't have it better.”
Holywood is too small for McIlroy to develop delusions of grandeur.
“This is one of the safest places to live, Northern Ireland,” says Michael Bannon, McIlroy's coach from boyhood who still coaches him today.
“And I can see now, going to America and these places that you would have to live in gated communities. ... But over here it's different.”
Holywood, the quiet town in County Down where McIlroy grew up in a red-brick house with an artificial putting green in the front yard, is one of those pleasing and all too rare places where perfect strangers say “Hello!” and give you a nod in the street. It escaped the worst of the Troubles.
In the watershed year of the the Good Friday Agreement, 1998, McIlroy won a prominent under-10 tournament at Doral, beating 80 kids from two dozen countries.
Afterward, all freckles and cheeky grin, the nine-year-old chipped a golf ball into the open mouth of a washing machine, just as he did at home, and performed other tricks on television.
He could already drive a ball 200 yards, McIlroy told his envious interviewer, and said he practiced all day, every day when he could.
Asked if he wanted to become a professional golfer, McIlroy's response was unhesitating: “Yes.”
His grandfather, Jimmy, worked all his life repairing cranes in the Belfast docks where the Titanic was built, picking up golf in his 30s at the Holywood Golf Club in the lush hills above his home, overlooking Belfast Lough.
He transmitted the game to Rory's father, Gerry, and uncles, Colm and Brian.
Rory's cousin, Fergus, 12, now wants to follow in his footsteps, too.
The club bent its rules to let Rory in as a member at age seven, after a mandatory induction interview where “he assured us that he wouldn't be a nuisance to anybody and that he knew the rules,” says Eddie Harper, who organised the juniors.
Rory “was here pretty much every day,” he adds.
By age seven or eight, “he was a proper little player”.
One thing McIlroy seems never to have lacked is self-confidence.
The first time Rory out-drove his father and Colm, he walked up to his ball and then turned toward them 10 yards back and shouted, “Everybody all right there?” the uncle recalls.
Everyone has a solid opinion about what those who don't understand the mental anguish of golf cruelly call “the choke”.
That, of course, was when McIlroy played like Woods of old for three days at the Masters before blowing the lead on the final round.
Too young, too eager, too inexperienced, too early in his career, runs local wisdom.
He was “Catch yourself on!” personified. People, not just from Ireland, wrote supportive letters to Holywood Golf Club.
“A pile of mail,” Gray says.
“He came and picked them up and went home and read them all.”