Meet Ireland's next Rory McIlroy (12) who has just won top junior tournament in America
Published 05/01/2016 | 12:01
Meet the next Rory McIlroy. At an age when most boys are more interested in computer games, 12-year-old Belfast Royal Academy pupil Tom McKibbin from Newtownabbey has just triumphed at the Junior Honda Classic in Florida.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph from the US, Tom told of his incredible dedication to golf, revealing he spent Christmas Day on the course with his dad.
"It's really tough, I was playing against people who have won world titles," said Tom reflecting on his win.
Finishing on two under par to win by two strokes at Palm Beach Gardens, this is the second high-profile junior tournament victory for Tom, having won the World Kids Championship at Pinehurst, North Carolina, in August.
McIlroy, who won the main Honda Classic in 2012, congratulated Tom on Twitter. "Well done Tom. Great to see all your hard work paying off."
Tom had previously got the chance to practise with McIlroy in the Gulf.
"When I met Rory McIlroy in Dubai we were just chatting about golf tournaments and things like that. He told me to give him six years before I beat him," he said laughing.
Having only started playing in late 2010, Tom said his love for golf was instant.
"I started playing with a friend one day, they took me to a driving range and I started hitting balls and I just really liked it."
These days he says that school work aside, he lives and breathes golf and that his dream is to some day win Majors, and in particular the Masters.
After celebrating his victory, he's already looking forward to the next competition.
"The European Championships is next, that would be great to win. I came seventh last time," he said.
Tom's parents Robin and Sara have worked tirelessly to make their son's sporting dreams come true, paying for all the competition, travel and training expenses themselves. Robin described watching his son win the Junior Honda Classic as "thrilling".
"He's been really chuffed to win it, it's his third time trying, he's won over a huge field of talented players," he said.
He said that he's been impressed by how well Tom has handled the pressure of big tournaments.
"He's used to it now having won the world championship in August, so he probably could handle even more pressure, he was fairly confident this time."
Robin added that getting recognition from his golfing hero had added to the excitement for his son.
"He was thrilled when Rory sent the tweet to congratulate him," he said. "When he met him before in Dubai, he spent quite a lot of time with him chatting."
After the main Honda Classic tournament, Tom will be invited back to walk out on the green with the senior winners.
"We have our fingers crossed it will be Rory or Graeme McDowell who win," said Robin.
Having first picked up a golf club in 2010, and then playing his first season at Greenisland Golf Club in 2012, Robin said encouraging Tom to play was never a problem.
"I was surprised by his focus right from the word go, I couldn't get him away from the golf course, it would be getting dark and I couldn't get him away," explained Robin.
"He played rugby, football and tennis in clubs, but once the golf took hold that was it.
"I still see his work ethic and he has spent a lot of hours on the range to get here."
Being away from home for most of December, the McKibbin family decided to stay in Florida for Christmas.
"It's been the warmest Christmas since records began in Florida, we spent Christmas day on the golf course," added Robin.
"If we were at home the weather would normally not be good enough to play."
Robin said that the family do "anything we can to get him here, it can be like a working holiday, although we are in nice places".
A year nine student at BRA, there were also congratulations for Tom from his school principal Moore Dickson.
He described Tom as popular with his friends and, in spite of all his success, "very modest and not in any sense arrogant or vain, he's also very determined and focused". "He just takes things in his stride and deals with pressure very well," added Mr Dickson.
"His parents are keen that he would excel in school as well. He is an able boy and at school we would try to help him with his games option, he gets to go and train at golf instead of playing hockey or rugby."
Tom's success in Florida has had one downside, missing out on an invitation to attend the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards in Belfast alongside McIlroy. But he has a nomination of his own now for the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards taking place in Belfast on January 25.