Holywood a refuge for Rory McIlroy through good times and bad
World No 1 fully appreciates role home-town club played in his ascent as he stands on verge of golfing history, writes Ewan Murray
It would be wrong to assume there is only one McIlroy with an association to Holywood Golf Club. Rory, world No 1, man of the moment, who will stand on the verge of golfing history when taking to the first tee at Augusta National on Thursday, is of course, the most high-profile export and may long remain so.
But take a wander round the clubhouse and the detail reveals more - not least why McIlroy's background is significant and he retains such a close affiliation to his roots.
Next to a team photograph featuring a grinning, visor-wearing 16-year-old McIlroy as part of a successful junior team is a picture of a winning adult group from 1998. Gerry McIlroy, Rory's father, is front left. Ten yards down the corridor, the scorecard from a course record round of 63 is mounted. The player? Colm McIlroy, uncle of Rory, brother of Gerry.
More recent years have boosted the Holywood decoration. McIlroy's major triumphs and progress to the summit of his sport are recognised throughout the clubhouse. There is a wonderful artwork of Quail Hollow's par-three 17th, hand-presented by the Charlotte club, to mark McIlroy's first PGA Tour success.
There is a dream scenario for both McIlroy and the course where he learned his trade. That is, a packed bar in front of a projector screen next Sunday night as the 25-year-old closes in on a Masters win and career grand slam. Each of his previous major triumphs have been brilliantly celebrated within these walls.
Holywood is immensely proud of its favourite son but, in a snapshot of Northern Irish character and one displayed by McIlroy himself, people will not shout from the rooftops about it. One needs to enter the inner sanctum of the club to appreciate properly his roots, rather than have them thrown in one's face from the moment of entering the town, population 12,000.
Within the club the sense of closeness to the four-time major winner is unavoidable and that goes beyond the level of Nike-branded clothing in the professional's shop. The current captain, Seamus O'Connor, was introduced to golf by Rory's grandfather, Jimmy. O'Connor's wife taught McIlroy at school. "Rosie (McIlroy's mother) would ask how he was doing and, if there was ever a problem, just to let her know," O'Connor recalls. "There was no messing about. By that time he was obviously very good at golf but there was no question of special treatment."
Quite how talented McIlroy was, and by what age, is best chronicled by Paul Gray. The club's general manager was a 16-year-old heading towards scratch golfer status when Rory was born. He used to caddie for Gerry McIlroy during Holywood club championships. Gray later turned professional, working under the guidance of Michael Bannon, McIlroy's coach from toddler level to this day. By 2011 Gray was a guest of McIlroy at the Masters that so painfully got away. Together these links have lasted a lifetime.
"At seven he had a complete game," Gray explains. "You never know how far someone is really going to go but it was all there in terms of technique, how he hit certain shots and how he could see the game. He went to America and won the world under 10 championship but even at that stage you don't know how things are going to turn out.
"By 13 or 14 he was involved in the Ireland set-up. By 15 he was basically too good for the under 18 level. He started competing against the men, then won the West of Ireland championship. So that's at 15-16 and you realise there is a real chance he will be a pro.
"I don't think anybody expected him to do what he has done; it is one-in-a -million stuff. Even Gerry, hand on heart, I don't think can have seen what was going to happen. Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Rory. These people don't come around very often."
But what was it like to be on hand as McIlroy suffered the trauma of four years ago? "The way he played those first three days I thought: 'My God, if he had holed some of the putts that he could and should have, he would be leading by 15 shots.' He was that good, tee to green," Gray says. "He was unlucky as well. That shot on 10 on Sunday wasn't nearly as bad as it turned out, maybe 10 yards left of where Rory wanted it but not 70, where it ended up.
"Hypothetically, if he hits a flighty drive down the right of that hole, a bit of cut on it and he isn't that happy, gets in on the green and makes par. Does he win the Masters? Yeah, he probably does.
"Everybody around him at that time just said: 'Rory, this is hard for you now but some day you will look back on this and realise it made you even better and stronger.' I think it was one of the best things that happened to him." The player himself concurs.
McIlroy's permanent residence these days is in Florida, as is the want or necessity of a sporting global superstar. When he speaks of home, though, it is always with a genuine warmth rather than a sense of an area from a previous life. His closest friends, from the golfing scene in Northern Ireland, are regulars at McIlroy's events. "He still potters around Holywood, goes into cafes, goes to the gym, comes up here," Gray adds. "He was in here at Christmas a couple of times. When he comes here I just try to keep it regular, as normal as possible for him. I don't want people asking him to sign all sorts because he has so much of that in his life; I like to think of Holywood as a place he can come to get away from it. Inevitably there is something he will be asked to sign and he will do it; he is great at that stuff."
Of all the characters in McIlroy's background, Bannon is one of the most crucial and understated. He left Holywood for Bangor in 1998, subsequently taking on a full-time role coaching the player whose swing he has developed and fine-tuned for more than 20 years.
"Michael does a great job in keeping Rory grounded," says Gray. "He is brilliant at that. Everybody sees Michael as Rory's swing coach but he is actually a coach in the most holistic sense of the word. You had someone like David Leadbetter with Nick Faldo, very focused on technique and that would probably be the extent of his coaching. With Michael it is very much also about life, what Rory needs to focus on in his life to make it good."
Holywood itself suffers from the same membership challenges that have impacted on British and Irish golf in general. In Ireland club membership slipped to 156,000 in 2014; a drop from the high of 210,000 a decade earlier. Visitor interest, though, is assured, as is motivation for future generations.
"When I was a kid playing here, we had a guy called Johnny Dixon," Gray recalls. "He would have been the best player ever to come out of the club at the time. He played for the senior Ireland team. When I was looking to get better, it was a case of 'I'd love to be him'. Rory has lifted that bar to the highest place on earth. There are so many juniors here just because of Rory. Even if it is just a case of making them believe something is possible, that will make them better players. It's having someone to look up to, it's knowing it is achievable because so much of the game is about belief. We have some very good, very young ones, aged 13 and 14 who with another couple of years under their belts could be scratch. Two of them are four handicap at 13 and involved in the Ireland teams."
McIlroy surpassed this level a long time ago. Still, he has not lost sight of his roots. The enjoyment and respect remain as mutual as ever.
Sunday Indo Sport