Thursday 27 April 2017

Haiti gives rory timely change in perspective

Karl MacGinty

THE line across the top of Rory McIlroy's Twitter page doesn't bear quite the same irony as it used to. "I hit a little white ball around a field sometimes," it reads.

That's like Celine Dion saying she occasionally sings in the shower.

Yet the main picture on his Twitter page now shows McIlroy holding a smiling Haitian child in his arms during his visit last week to the disaster-hit Caribbean nation.

It surely places such trivial things as golf in an entirely different perspective.

McIlroy's first field trip as UNICEF Ireland's new sporting ambassador hardly could have come at a better time for the 22-year-old as he makes his final preparations for this week's US Open at Congressional.

After all, this is the young Ulsterman's first Major championship since April's final-day implosion at the US Masters.

Yet McIlroy's meltdown at Augusta National was nowhere near as stunning as the dignity of his response to the most painful setback of his young life.

Admiration

If countless hearts broke for McIlroy as he buried his head in the crook of his arm on the 13th tee that fateful Sunday at the Masters, they soon soared in admiration at his ability to pick himself up, dust himself down and simply get on with his life.

McIlroy plainly has many more gifts than a glorious golf game.

His decision to replace the recent snap on his Twitter page of himself swinging a golf club as a toddler with that touching picture from Haiti clearly indicates that McIlroy got the message.

Elite sports people often can be blessed by the life-enhancing experiences their career can bring.

It was eye-opening, for example, to travel with Brian Kerr's Irish underage squad to the U-21 World Cup in Nigeria in 1997 and witness the warm-hearted way in which the likes of Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne, then not long out of their teens, reached out to the poverty-stricken people around them.

To a man, Kerr's players were struck by the bright beaming smiles of welcome they'd receive in the grimmest of places. That tournament offered anyone lucky enough to attend it a wonderful insight into the stunning strength of the human spirit in adversity.

McIlroy plainly got the same message in Haiti. Eighteen months after the earthquake which devastated Haiti, McIlroy witnessed in Port-au-Prince "stuff I never thought I'd see in my life".

He saw countless people living in tents. He saw the dome atop the presidential palace caved in, teetering. He has the photos on his phone to remind him of each step.

Yet amid the endless mounds of rubble, he was struck by the smiling faces of Haitian schoolchildren which shone like beacons of joy amid the hopelessness of their surroundings.

"The spirit, not just of the kids, but the whole country, was incredible," he said. "The whole experience was quite inspiring. It changes how you think."

McIlroy spoke of these experiences during a two-day reconnaissance visit to Congressional Country Club late last week. Situated in leafy Bethesda, just beyond the Capital Beltway which surrounds Washington DC, Congressional has long been a playground for US presidents and other movers and shakers among America's elite.

Its opulence stands in breathtaking contrast to the nine-hole Petionville Country Club, Haiti's only golf course, which has been transformed since the earthquake into a vast tented refugee camp for some 40,000 people left homeless by the disaster.

Not unnaturally, McIlroy had been lined-up to visit Petionville last week, but those plans were abandoned when a tropical rainstorm early last week caused such severe flooding and mudslides at Petionville that many of those tents were swept away. Dozens died.

"You didn't want to intrude, because a night like that happens, spirits in the camp are not going to be very good," McIlroy said. "It's hard. It would've been great -- well, it wouldn't have been great to go and see it, but... "

McIlroy's profile as one of the brightest stars in world golf has been underscored by the USGA's decision to place him in a marquee group in next Thursday's first round with American icon Phil Mickelson and another hugely famous US Open fall-guy, Dustin Johnson.

Though he's won the Masters three times and the US PGA once, Mickelson is hounded by his astonishing misfortune as a five-times runner-up at his national Open. Johnson is best known for the catastrophic final-round 82 which helped clear the path for Graeme McDowell's victory at Pebble Beach last year, followed two months later by an unfortunate two-stroke penalty he incurred on the final hole of the US PGA, wrecking a gilt-edged chance of a first Major title at Whistling Straits.

However, the majority of people at Congressional and around the world of golf will be especially interested to see how McIlroy performs in his first Major since Augusta.

Pressure? Certainly not alongside the grim daily battle for survival McIlroy witnessed at first-hand in Haiti last week. He could not have asked for a more timely change in perspective.

Irish Independent

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