How the boy who learned golf by chipping into his mum's washing machine is set to really clean up
By the time Rory McIlroy was 10, he was displaying a freakish talent for golf. The youngster from Holywood, Co Down, was honing his skills by repeatedly chipping balls from the end of his parent's hallway into the drum of their washing machine.
It was an unorthodox way to learn the sport, but one that would prove to be effective years later -- particularly last weekend, when McIlroy, now 19, was winning his first tournament as a professional, the prestigious Dubai Desert Classic.
His exploits moved veteran golfer Mark O'Meara to note that McIlroy is a better player now than Tiger Woods was at that age. O'Meara -- who just happens to be Tiger's best friend -- is not given to exaggeration, but after witnessing McIlroy's opening round 64, he delivered the highest praise.
"Ball-striking wise at 19, he's probably better than Tiger was at 19," O'Meara said. "His technique, I think, is better. Certainly Tiger has developed his game and swing over the years and made modifications to be able to hit the ball pin-high, but Rory is already doing that and he's 19, so he's already a step ahead."
McIlroy played his first professional event as a 16-year-old in 2005 (although he turned full-time professional last year), while Woods waited until he was 21 before leaving the amateur ranks. And, while still a teenager, McIlroy is far higher up the rankings than Woods was at that age. Victory at the weekend moved him up to 16th.
"I hope O'Meara's comments, while well intentioned, don't put undue pressure on Rory," says TV3 golf journalist Denis Kirwan, who knows McIlroy well.
"Tiger is a one-off, but Rory has all the attributes to be one of the game's great players. I've been watching golf a long time, but I don't think I've seen anyone with a swing as perfect as his."
Kirwan says McIlroy has a maturity that belies his age when it comes to his golf. "The cliché is true -- he has an old head on young shoulders. Remember, he is no overnight sensation. Anybody interested in golf in this country would have first heard about him at least six years ago."
But it was on the opening day of the 2007 British Open in Carnoustie that he first achieved world recognition. Then an amateur, he was the only player in a star-studded field of 156 of the best golfers in the world, Woods included, to complete their first round without a single bogey on his card.
"When he won the amateur title at the Open in Carnoustie in 2007, he was calmness personified in the circus of the press tent, where there were maybe 300 journalists present. One of them asked him how he was taking it all in his stride so easily and he said he had been doing this since he was 10."
That was when he won the Junior World Championship in San Diego -- around the time that he was learning how to chip with the help of the family washing machine.
His parents, Gerry and Rosie, recognised his talent from an early age. He was proving to be exceptionally gifted, playing with plastic clubs at three. His first official handicap was 36 when he was seven; by the age of nine he was playing off 18. With such gifts, it's hardly surprising that his parents devoted themselves to ensuring that their only child had the best possible chance to succeed.
At one point, Gerry McIlroy took on three jobs -- putting in a 90-hour week -- while Rosie worked nights to finance their son's fledgling career. The family didn't take a proper holiday for seven years in order to help pay for the five weeks of annual travel in the under-age golf circuit.
In addition, they had a 1,200sq ft, floodlit putting green installed in the garden so young Rory could practise day and night. It's paid off -- his short game is outstanding. Darren Clarke has been extremely supportive of his young compatriot over the past few years. "I joined the Darren Clarke Foundation at 12," McIlroy told the Irish Independent last year.
"The first year I went there, Darren gave me his phone number and said, 'If you ever need anything or need to know anything, just give me a shout'.
"We became quite close and Darren and his boys are great friends. He showed me the ropes when I have been out on tour. He has played practice rounds with me and helped to introduce me to the world of professional golf."
He is represented by Chubby Chandler, one of the most respected sports agents in the business. Chandler even sought the advice of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson on handling the prodigious young talent: "One of the things he advised was to cut away all the hangers on, but luckily Rory didn't have any. Academically, he is very bright. He got all As and Bs in his GCSEs."
McIlroy doesn't smoke and drinks more moderately than most 19-year-olds. He keeps his feet on the ground thanks to a long-term relationship with local girl Holly Sweeney, who is still at school. She was unable to attend the Dubai Desert Classic as she was studying for her A-Levels.
Already, he has many of the trappings of stardom, including a detached house in Holywood, a villa being built for him by his sponsors at the Jumeirah Beach resort in Dubai and a top-of-the-range Audi car.
Just 16 months a professional, he has already earned more in that time than journeymen pros might make in a decade. He has collected over €1.5m in prize money and probably as much again in corporate deals.
But, according to one Dublin-based sports sponsorship consultant, McIlroy's earning power is set to explode, particularly if, as expected, he breaks into the top 10 this year.
"Within a couple of years, he could command €10m per annum in prize money and commercial endorsements, with the bulk of that coming from the latter. He seems like a clean-cut guy with massive talent and that's obviously very appealing for marketers.
"But the talk that he could earn more than Tiger Woods is rubbish; Woods had a USP (unique selling point), in that he's black in a traditionally white sport, and he has managed to transcend golf in a way that probably no other player in its history has done. I mean, even those who have never watched a single golf shot on TV could tell you who Tiger Woods is."
There is little doubt, though, that McIlroy will transcend his sport in this country at least. A Catholic, Rory McIlroy is clearly proud of his Irishness. This week, when talking about his aspirations for the year, he mentioned winning the Open. "It would be nice to keep that run going: Harrington, Harrington . . . keep the claret jug in the country for another while."
When talking to the media on his triumphant return to the Holywood Golf Club, his laidback demeanour was palpable. "He's just a lovely guy," Denis Kirwan says. "There are no airs and graces at all, no arrogance off the golf course. Despite his success, he's still very much a teenager."
On his return home on Monday, his first duty -- after leaving his clothes with his mother to wash -- was to go out shopping in the local Sainsbury's because his fridge was empty, and the next was to catch up on missed episodes of the television show 24.
Even his choice of pre-round ritual speaks volumes of his age. "He psyches himself up by listening to R&B and hip-hop on his iPod: "all the stuff that is played in clubs".
His next outing will be at the WGC Accenture Matchplay in Tucson, Arizona, on March 1. But it's his debut appearance at the US Masters in Augusta on April 12, that he's truly got his sights on. That venerable old course has created legends, and one Irish teenager will be hoping to produce his own magic. Mark O'Meara, for one, reckons he can.