The boy next door

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am


Rory McIlroy has been busy. And we are on pins as we wait for his answers to our questionnaire to write this story before the British Open gets under way at Royal St George's on Thursday. But it is easy to give extra leeway to one of the most likeable players in the world of golf, if not the world of sport.

Easygoing by nature and tolerant and respectful of others due to a strong family upbringing, McIlroy has been charm personified on his annual visits to this city for the UBS Hong Kong Open - he will be here in December, too - and there is no danger of that changing despite him winning the US Open last month.

'I'm lucky to have people around me who are grounded, who would never let me get too big for my boots,' says McIlroy. 'I think it is all down to where you come from and the people around you, your family and friends.'

For the past fortnight, McIlroy has been busy watching other sporting stars in action. He visited Wimbledon twice, once sitting in the Royal Box, and met with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Then he went to Hamburg, Germany, and watched Vladimir Klitschko silence David Haye in a world heavyweight unification bout. Like any other young man, McIlroy enjoys his sport.

And he is a source of that enjoyment, too. The 22-year-old star from Northern Ireland enthralled the galleries and TV audiences around the world when he romped to his first major championship at Congressional, shattering the US Open record with a stupendous winning score of 16 under par.

So has life changed since he successfully ascended golf's summit? You could almost sense him smiling as he replied: 'I hope I can quickly learn to manage the extra demands on me. I have a great team around me from my management company to my family and friends and they will all help to ease the pressure on me.'

Family and friends are a theme that comes up quite a lot in the interview which, needless to say, highlights the importance McIlroy places on these twin pillars in his life. Although just 22, he has the wisdom and maturity of a wizened seer, yet at the same time retains the boyish charm and ability to enjoy the simple things of life, as shown by the reaction to his homecoming after winning the US Open.

'It was pretty amazing. From the moment I landed at the George Best International Airport in Belfast there were so many people congratulating me and cheering me.

'I took the trophy back to Holywood, my home club, and there was an unbelievable crowd there waiting to meet me. It was just great. I also had a few parties with family and friends that week. It was important to share my success with those closest to me because they have all done a lot to help me get to this position,' McIlroy said.

None more than dad Gerry McIlroy, who first stuck a plastic golf club in his infant son's hand, and has been behind him ever since. Gerry worked as a janitor at a sports club cleaning toilets and showers, and after that shift ended, went to the bar serving drinks until midnight.

Mum Rosie also sacrificed everything to provide for Rory, working the night shift at a local factory. They didn't have a vacation for nine years, saving up every penny for Rory's future.

'My parents have been the biggest influence on my life and career. They worked very hard to give me the opportunities that I have had in life,' says McIlroy.

And now that success is here with all its riches, he says he will continue to rely on the people closest to him to make certain he doesn't get too big for his boots.

'The people around me, those who are dear to me, will definitely help keep my feet on the ground. I also have a lot of great friends in golf who have experienced the same things recently; guys like G-Mac [Graeme McDowell] will know exactly what kind of year is ahead of me. But there are also guys like Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel who I can speak to about the situations they have been in since winning their first major,' McIlroy said.

While South Africans Oosthuizen, winner of the British Open last year, and Schwartzel, winner of the Masters this year, performed creditably, the common verdict is that the pair are not expected to win more than a handful of majors. Not so McIlroy, who is now being mooted as the next Tiger Woods, or even better - the person who could overhaul Jack Nicklaus and his all-time high of 18 major triumphs.

As expected, McIlroy is modest and plays down any comparisons to Woods. He doesn't even bother to mention Nicklaus.

'When you win a major quite early in your career, everyone is going to draw comparisons to Tiger and what he achieved and that is only natural. I'm just happy to have won one of the four major trophies that has his name on it,' McIlroy said.

Like everyone else, McIlroy is also hoping for the return of Woods, who is out with a knee injury. The British Open will be the fourth major that 14-time major champion Woods has missed since 2008 when his life, both personal and on the course, started unravelling.

'It would be nice for Tiger to be healthy again and get his knee and Achilles in shape and get back on the golf course because he does bring a little something extra to tournaments,' McIlroy says graciously.

For the first time in his career, McIlroy will step to the first tee at the British Open as a major winner.

Will the great expectations of the world put more pressure on him?

'I will approach it as I have approached the last two majors and I hope I have a little bit left in me,' McIlroy said.

'I said after Augusta, there are three more majors left and I'll try and go out and win one of them. I have done that. Now there are two more majors left and I'm going to try my best to go out and put myself in a great position to win them both.'

There is a real possibility that McIlroy will arrive in Hong Kong for the December 1-4 UBS Hong Kong Open as a multiple major winner. He promises it won't distract him from his goal of winning at Fanling for the first time.

'I would love to win in Hong Kong this year. I have been very close the past couple of years so to come back as the US Open champion, and maybe more, and get the job done would be pretty special,' McIlroy said. 'Hong Kong is such a vibrant and exciting city with amazing energy running through it. It is one of my favourite places in the world and I love coming back.'

He will be most welcome here.