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McIlroy comes of Age

He had always set his sights beyond the mundane

Posted Jun 20, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

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When I look back on the hitherto short but spectacular career of the newly-crowned US Open champion, certain happenings spring readily to mind.  And they started for me in chill winter winds at Portmarnock in the autumn of 2002.

That was when a diminutive 13-year-old with a cherubic face beneath an unruly mop of hair, stood on the tee at the short seventh. “OK Rory,” said Darren Clarke.  “Show us what you’ve got.”  With that, the youngster hit a seven iron about 160 yards to within eight feet of the pin.  And Clarke smiled at me and said: “Look out for this kid.”

Thirty months later, the weather wasn’t much better at Rosses Point where McIlroy, as a 15-year-old, made his debut in the West of Ireland Amateur Championship.  At an advanced stage of the event, the two local bookmakers, Tom Gavin and Dominic Rooney decided they would need to take one more bet to balance their finances.

Shortly afterwards, Gavin enquired off-handedly if any more bets had been laid.  "Yeah," said Rooney. "I gave eights on a young fella named McIlroy."  "Oh sweet Jesus, we're ruined," exploded Gavin, with the look of a man who had just caught his foot in a rat-trap.  Unlike his colleagues, he was acutely aware of the prodigious talents the young, Northern lad. Later Gavin told me: "We took a hiding when Rory went on to win.”  He further explained that Rory’s father, Gerry, had bet €100 each way at odds of 8/1, which would have covered their expenses nicely.

During the early days of Open Championship week later that year, with the build-up totally dominated by Tiger Woods, some decidedly interesting news reached us from the stroke-play qualifying stage of the North of Ireland Championship at Royal Portrush.  McIlroy, now turned 16, had just covered the famed Dunluce Links off the back tees in a staggering 61 strokes.           

Recalling those remarkable, early years, Rory’s coach, Michael Bannon, told me: “I have to smile now when I think that I actually baby-sat Rory, who went to primary school with my daughter, Ellen.  We lived on opposite sides of the street in Holywood (Co Down), so the families were always very close.  I suppose that in a golfing sense, I became a sort of second father to him.”

Bannon went on: "It meant that as pro at Holywood (where he worked for 16 years before moving to Bangor in 1999), I made cut-down clubs for Rory at various stages of his development.  Gradually, I could see that he had an extraordinary feel for the game.  If ever you could talk about a natural golfer, he was it, but I knew it was important that such talent should be given a good method.  Which I like to think I did.

"Like with any learner, there were faults to be ironed out, like a rigid left leg and a strong left-hand grip.  You know the way youngsters look for length off the tee by slinging out a long hook, because they haven't the strength to do it any other way.  

"I was so confident about his talent that when he was heading for a win in the World Under-10 Championship in Miami, I told his father that he'd be a scratch player at 13 (McIlroy went on to play off plus 3.4).   And he's remained my pupil. 

“When he came up against older, bigger players, even tournament professionals, I didn’t dare hold him back.  My decided to give him his head and hope that he'd remain focused on improving his skills.  And I have never had any worries about Rory in that regard, simply because of how diligently he applies himself to practice."

Where the stop-watch and tape are the measuring tools of athletic achievement, in golf it's titles and scoring averages.  It seems odd now that when McIlroy came to Congressional with only two titles as a professional - the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic and the 2010 Quail Hollow Championship - he was talked about as an under-achiever.

This, about a player who led or was tied for the lead in successive major championships from last years Open to this year’s Masters.   We should have recognised that he had set his sights some way beyond the mundane.

- Dermot Gilleece

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