Paul Kimmage meets Rory McIlroy: The truth about the Olympics, close friendship with Tiger and the important things in life
Thirteen years ago, on a gloriously sunny morning in February 2004, I hired a car at Los Angeles airport and drove west for 130 miles to the Shadow Ridge Golf Resort in Palm Springs. I was there to spend time with Nick Faldo, Europe's most successful golfer, and make plans for a series of his columns that would appear in The Sunday Times.
Nick had company that week: his wife, Valerie Bercher; his daughter, Emma Scarlet; his manager, Iain Forsyth; his coach, Jeremy Bennett; and the dozen teenage golfers who were being nurtured by his foundation. One night he asked if I would talk to the kids about dealing with the media - the only aspect of the game that had ever troubled him.
We found a room and two chairs the next day and began the one-on-ones . . .
. . . and a mild-mannered 14-year-old from Holywood, Co Down:
I had no idea his rocket was primed and set for take-off, or that I'd spend a chunk of the next decade watching him from afar and wishing I had stayed on board:
The 2011 US Open champion.
The 2012 US PGA champion.
The 2014 Open champion.
The 2014 US PGA champion.
This was Planet Rory.
By April 2015 and the 79th Masters Tournament, he was the world number one and a green jacket away from joining the game's most celebrated club - the five players (Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods) to complete the career Grand Slam. And now Faldo was watching too.
On the eve of the tournament, he sat down with Golf Digest's Jaime Diaz and told a story about the boy he had known in Palm Springs: "He had all the stuff you see today: an incredible full and free release of the club that gives him that very rare, true 100-per-cent strike," Faldo said. "But what most struck me was something else.
"At that time, my daughter Emma had just been born, and some of the kids had come over to see her and hold her. Fast-forward seven years, and I see Rory for the first time again at a tournament. The first thing he says to me is, 'How's Emma?' I found that extraordinary for someone who was clearly going to be a champion.
"He's able to do what so many of us couldn't or didn't during our playing days: take the blinkers off and be a whole person. And he still does."
This is the essential Rory.
Two weeks ago, after a week testing equipment in Dubai, he made a brief stopover in Dublin. He had an engagement in London the following afternoon, and was heading to Belfast to spend Christmas with his family, but could spare me some time if I could get to his hotel for 8.0am.
I arrived at 7.45 and sent a message to his room: "Anseo." Five minutes later, we were shaking hands in reception. "I was taking a bit of a chance there," I smiled, pulling up a chair. "Wasn't sure you'd know what that meant." He pulled his phone out of his pocket and flashed the most brilliant grin: "I had to Google it," he laughed.
1. The Essential Rory
There's a fearlessness and intelligence to McIlroy that transcends the course, and these are the qualities that place him above golfers of equal - or at least near-equal - talent. They also get him in occasional trouble. Northern Irish politics aside, Rory won't hesitate to speak his mind, especially when he feels threatened.
'Slaying the Tiger'
Paul Kimmage: I was on the radio last night and had to list my five sporting highlights of the year. You made it.
Rory McIlroy: Thank you.
PK: But you have to guess what it was.
RM: The Ryder Cup?
PK: Remember, this is a warped and twisted mind you're dealing with here.
RM: (Smiles) Yeah, I know
McIlroy Speaks to the media at Royal Troon
PK: Your press conference in Troon before the Open.
RM: OK, yeah.
PK: You sit down and there are questions coming from every angle about your return to the Open (he was injured in 2015) and drug testing in golf. And then they start to needle you: "Rory, you're still a member of the big four but you're in danger of becoming Ringo."
PK: And your reaction is just brilliant. It's the iron fist in the velvet glove: "I've got four Major championships and I'd love to add to that tally," you say, "just as those guys would love to add to their one or two Majors that they have."
PK: You're taking them on.
PK: I was even more impressed when they asked you about Jordan Spieth and offered you a bailout with regard to the Olympics: "Jordan just said a little while ago that pulling out of the Olympics is the most difficult decision that he's ever made."
RM: Hoping that I will agree with him.
PK: Absolutely. But you're not having it.
RM: No, not at all.
PK: Because that's not how you feel.
RM: (laughs) No, it's not.
PK: And that puts you in a special category - you're one of those rare sportsmen who actually says what he believes.
RM: Well, I'd had nothing but questions about the Olympics - 'the Olympics, the Olympics, the Olympics' - and it was just one question too far. I'd said what I needed to say. I'd got myself out of it, and it comes up again. And I could feel it. I could just feel myself go 'Poom!' and I thought: 'I'm going to let them have it.'
RM: Okay, I went a bit far. But I hate that term 'growing the game'. Do you ever hear that in other sports? In tennis? Football? 'Let's grow the game'. I mean, golf was here long before we were, and it's going to be here long after we're gone. So I don't get that, but I probably went a bit overboard.
PK: They were goading you.
RM: Yeah, but maybe I shouldn't have reacted in the way that I did. But Olympic golf to me doesn't mean that much - it really doesn't. I don't get excited about it. And people can disagree, and have a different opinion, and that's totally fine. Each to their own.
PK: There was a lot of blow-back for you afterwards. When you were asked about it after the opening round you said: "I've spent seven years trying to please everyone and I figured out that I really can't do that, so I may as well be true to myself."
RM: Yeah, I mean when it was announced (that golf was to be an Olympic sport) in 2009 or whatever, all of a sudden it put me in a position where I had to question who I am. Who am I? Where am I from? Where do my loyalties lie? Who am I going to play for? Who do I not want to piss off the most? I started to resent it. And I do. I resent the Olympic Games because of the position it put me in - that's my feeling towards it - and whether that's right or wrong, it's how I feel.
Justin Rose celebrates Olympic success
RM: I sent Justin Rose a text after he won, I think I still have the message: 'I'm happy for you, mate. I saw how much it means to you. Congratulations.' He said: 'Thanks very much. All the boys here want to know do you feel like you missed out?' I said: 'Justin, if I had been on the podium (listening) to the Irish national anthem as that flag went up, or the British national anthem as that flag went up, I would have felt uncomfortable either way.' I don't know the words to either anthem; I don't feel a connection to either flag; I don't want it to be about flags; I've tried to stay away from that.
RM: Not everyone is (driven by) nationalism and patriotism and that's never been me, because I felt like I grew up in a place where I wasn't allowed to be. It was suppressed. I'm very conflicted because I'm a Catholic and . . .
PK: You don't know what 'anseo' means?
RM: Exactly. I turned on the TV at home and it was the BBC; I did my GCSEs; I used pounds sterling, stuff like that. So I'm a Catholic but I feel very much 'Northern Irish'. And I never wanted it to get political or about where I'm from, but that's what it turned into. And it just got to the point where it wasn't worth the hassle.
PK: But as 'fans' we want you.
PK: You're either with us or against us.
PK: We don't understand.
RM: I spend a lot of time in Dublin and I love it , and I love the people here, and I love the people from up North. And it's been a hard thing for me to go through because as much as I enjoy Katie Taylor boxing, or the two lads (Paul and Gary O'Donovan) getting silver in the rowing, which was unbelievable and incredible and inspirational, I enjoy Justin Rose winning the gold medal in golf, or Mo Farah winning the 10,000 metres . . .
PK: Oh Jesus! Not Mo Farah!
RM: Okay, Jessica Ennis.
RM: So it's an awkward one.
PK: And it doesn't always make you popular. We've had these absolutely ludicrous awards on TV here this week - the RTE Sportsperson of the Year awards - and you weren't even nominated.
RM: I know why, I think.
PK: Go on.
RM: I think people have gotten so used to me doing what I do over the past few years . . .
PK: They're measuring you against what you've done before?
RM: Exactly, and you become a victim of your own success . . . well, I think anyway. I don't know if you have a spin on it.
PK: Well, there was an interesting point made recently on one of the radio stations here (Newstalk's 'Off the Ball') wondering whether it was because you were viewed, or were perceived, as "more Planet Nike than citizen of Ireland".
RM: What does that mean?
PK: That you're a global brand, I guess.
RM: Yeah, maybe. Golf is a global game, you play around the world and have obligations to sponsors who pay large amounts of money for you to wear or endorse their product. And that's all a part of it as well.
PK: They also wondered: 'What more can he do? He saved the Irish Open. He was on the 'Late Late Toy Show'. He's great in interviews. He's great with the media . . . '
RM: I live my life, and I live it the way I want to. And I'm not going to lose any sleep if I'm not on the shortlist for the RTE sports awards, or the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. That's not the reason I play the game. That's not the reason I live my life.
PK: Tell me about that life. What if I was to ask you to describe a perfect day?
RM: A perfect day?
PK: Yeah, where would you wake up?
RM: I would wake up at home in my own bed beside Erica (his fiancée, Erica Stoll). I don't know where that would be - Erica and I have started looking at places . . .
PK: That was the next question.
RM: Yeah, my mind went to Northern Ireland first and foremost. It went to Holywood. I'd wake up and I'd go to the gym.
PK: So the gym is not work?
RM: No, it's a lifestyle choice. I like to keep healthy. I see pictures of myself when I was 18 and think 'God!' And it's not that I would never want to look like that again but I feel so much better about myself. I'm stronger, and it helps me play golf better. And there's a whole holistic (element to it).
PK: Don't tell me that if I was sitting opposite you as an 18-year-old you wouldn't be feeling good about yourself. That's hindsight, surely?
RM: That is hindsight. At 18, of course I was feeling good about myself, because as my friends were going to university and struggling to pay their tuition fees, I was playing professional golf and earning money I never dreamed of. So it's definitely hindsight.
PK: OK, so you go to the gym. How long do you spend there?
RM: Emmm . . .
PK: This is your perfect day, remember.
RM: Let's say I wake-up at seven so . . . an hour?
PK: You wake up at seven on your perfect day!
Rory McIlroy with dad Gerry, mother Rosie and fiancée Erica Stoll
RM: Yeah, I've always been an early riser. I get it from my dad - he always says it's the best part of the day, you get so much done. So I'd get back from the gym, have breakfast with Erica and . . . I mean, honestly, my perfect day wouldn't be playing golf; I would not envision going to the golf course.
PK: I'd have been surprised if it did.
RM (laughs): Yeah.
PK: So what do you do?
RM: It's funny, I keep thinking of Florida for some reason. I guess it's where we've spent most of our time on the days when I'm not working. Erica's parents have this dog, Lilly, that we absolutely adore, so we would take the dog for a walk and call in to see my mum and dad who live right on the beach, and spend a bit of time with them . . . yeah, anything that sort of resembles a normal person's weekend. It would be very chilled out. I would just want to be home somewhere, and comfortable in my surroundings and not get asked for a photo or an autograph. To just be invisible I guess.
PK: Normal is one of your favourite words.
RM: It is, yeah.
PK: In 2007, you played your first Open as an amateur at Carnoustie and were asked to describe yourself: "I'm pretty much a normal teenager," you said. "I like to go out and go to the cinema, try and think about golf as little as possible when I'm off the golf course and just try and lead a normal life. I think I've pretty much done that for the last 18 years. I'm a normal teenager, but I'm a pretty good golfer as well. I think my friends will say that as well: I'm a pretty normal guy." That's four 'normals'.
PK: When did it stop being normal?
RM: Probably that week.
RM: I always wanted to spend time with the people that knew me before I was 'this' - my family first and foremost, and the guys I grew up with in Holywood Golf Club. I didn't want to get wrapped up in a lifestyle that I would deem as not normal, and a part of me probably did for a couple of years.
PK: When are we talking about?
McIlroy won the US Open in 2011
RM: Probably after I won my first Major in 2011. I got exposed to all these different things and it felt like (I had) a different status. As a 22-year-old it's very easy to be taken by it - meeting all these people and thinking it's cool: 'Oh, I've got such-and-such's number!', 'I just hung out with whoever last night!' You're enjoying yourself and having a great time but it's not . . . real. It's not fulfilling. It's not meaningful in any way. It's just very superficial.
PK: But that has to register.
RM: It does have to register.
PK: When does it register? (A pause)
PK: Something happens for it to register.
RM: The day I always go back to is the 2013 Open at Muirfield . . . It was the most homesick I have ever felt, which didn't make sense, because I'd spent the whole week before with my friends and family at home. I don't know, I was just a bit . . . lost I suppose. My game wasn't great, my personal life was very up-and-down and I didn't have a . . . what's the word? (A pause.)
RM: I remember speaking to a sports psychologist the next week - after a bad performance there's always an over-analysis of it - but I remember saying: 'I miss home. I miss having a home. I miss my friends, my family. I miss having something that . . . centres you.' That's the word, something that centres you, something that you can go back to and know that everything will be OK. Because I felt at that point I was never able to do that. I'd go from a golf tournament, to a tennis tournament, to an 'event' or sponsorship appearance, and back to a golf tournament. And it was just this . . . cycle. There was nothing familiar from my childhood, or something I could go back to.
PK: Did the sports psychologist suggest that? Or did you work it out for yourself?
RM: It was just through talking about it that I worked it out for myself.
PK: Did you speak to him again?
RM: No, that was the only time.
PK: Have you used many sports psychologists over the years?
RM: I worked with Bob Rotella for a couple of months, early in 2010.
PK: And that's it?
RM: Yeah, those were my two experiences.
Extraordinary athletes serve as idols to the next generation. Their greatness inspires, and in turn, the inspired become role models themselves. Tiger Woods idolised Jack Nicklaus. Rory McIlroy looked up to Tiger Woods. And now, Woods and McIlroy compete side by side as they fuel the dreams of sports' future greats. It's a ripple effect. In that vein, Nike Golf has created a new film, 'Ripple', that captures the powerful influence of Woods on a young McIlroy. 'Ripple' is a story of relentless pursuit by two remarkable athletes, Woods and McIlroy, and their respective paths to greatness.
April 5, 2015
PK: In the build-up to the 2015 Masters, Nike released this brilliant ad - 'Ripple' - about the influence Tiger Woods had on your life.
PK: But the essence of it, for me, was really your relationship with your father. I remember thinking at the time: 'Imagine being Gerry McIlroy watching this? It must be the greatest feeling ever.' Tell me about the making of 'Ripple' and its authenticity please.
RM: One of the great things about working with people from Nike is that you can tell your story and they are able to capture it in something like this. It's very authentic. They had people based for a month here getting shots from Holywood Golf Club, and at Bradshaws Brae Driving Range down the road, which is this little old, rickety, tin-covered . . .
PK: With the rain hammering down?
RM: Yeah, exactly.
PK: The attention to detail is brilliant - that shot of you wearing the little Aran sweater. I've seen a picture of you with one as a boy.
RM: Yeah, it's very authentic.
PK: And the shots of you watching Tiger on TV.
RM: I'm probably one of the biggest Tiger fans you will ever come across. I grew up watching him play and know all of his records. I remember going to play at Doral when I was eight or nine - my first tournament over there - and being on the 18th fairway of the 'Blue Monster' thinking: 'Wow! Tiger has been here. He's been on the same fairway!' That sort of stuff. And all of a sudden you are shooting a commercial with him.
PK: What did he make of it?
RM: I've never chatted to him about how I felt about him as a kid. I've said things like, "I was inspired by you", but I wouldn't want to show him any sort of weakness (laughs). But, yeah, he was a massive hero of mine.
PK: You were at Wentworth in '98 when (Mark) O'Meara beat him at the World Matchplay Championship. You got O'Meara's ball?
RM: Yeah, we used to go over every Halloween for the weekend because it was half-term. The tournament would have already started but we'd see the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final. I ran 36 holes around Wentworth every day - and I mean ran. But I loved every minute of it, and I was so small I was able to duck in between people and get right up next to the rope and see everything.
PK: Now that's love.
RM: Yeah. It was never (imposed) on me by my mum and dad. They saw that I had a passion for this, and that I loved it, and they let me go with it.
PK: Tell me about your parents. How did they meet?
RM: They met working at a bar in Belfast called Pips International - it's actually where they had their wedding reception as well - in 1987. My dad proposed after three months and they got married in January 1988 - a very quick courtship.
PK: So that's where you get your 'impulsive' streak from?
RM (smiles): Yeah, that's what everyone says: 'You're definitely Gerry's son.'
PK: Where are they from?
RM: My mum is from Lurgan, County Armagh. My dad is from Holywood (County Down) and because they both worked in Belfast it was better to live in Holywood. They got a house in Church View - a little blue-door end-of-terrace house - and that's where I spent the first four years of my life. Then we moved to a three-bedroom semi-detached on Belfast Road, and that's where I spent from four to 18.
PK: Your mother, Rosie, is a McDonald?
PK: Tell me about your grandparents?
RM: I never met my grandparents on my mother's side - they both died in their 40s. My mum was the second oldest - her brother, Mickey McDonald, played football for Glenavon and Gaelic for County Armagh. She has three younger siblings and took on the role of mother and provider when her parents died. So she had to grow up quickly. My grandfather on my dad's side died when I was two, so I barely remember him.
RM: Jimmy. He worked in Harland and Wolff as a fitter. My grandmother, Eva, who was also a McIlroy, died when I was 11 or 12. She's the only grandparent that I remember.
PK: Your father is the extrovert?
RM: Emmm . . . yeah.
PK: What's the reservation?
RM: When he's in a scenario he's comfortable with he is definitely the extrovert. He had to be because that was his job, working behind the bar as a manager. Basically, he used to put his salary away, and my mum's salary away, and their disposable income came from the tips he would get. So he was always good with people, and still is. My mum is definitely more reserved but once you get to know her, and she's comfortable, she's the life of the party.
PK: Your mum was the disciplinarian?
Rory with his mam Rosie
RM: Yes, definitely. As I said, she had to grow up quickly, so she was always the one that was on to me about keeping my room tidy and stuff. But at the same time I was an only child so I was probably spoiled more than most children.
PK: What was it like being an only child?
RM: I was an only child but my cousin Emma was almost like a sister to me growing up, we spent so much time together. And I've another cousin, Sean, who was a similar age. I've quite a lot of cousins, and had a lot of school friends, so I never felt I was missing out on anything.
PK: Any recollection of watching your uncle playing Gaelic games?
RM: My strongest memory of him is actually from his soccer days - he scored five against Linfield at one point. I played Gaelic for about a year in Holywood.
PK: At school?
RM: It wasn't at school, but I guess it came from school. I went to a Catholic primary school - St Patrick's - and played it for about a year, but I was always more into football and rugby. And then once I went to grammar school at Sullivan Upper, which was integrated but predominantly Protestant, it was rugby, hockey and cricket.
PK: Your love of golf came from the McIlroys. Your grandfather, Jimmy, played?
RM: Yeah, Jimmy was probably about a five or a six (handicap), and all my dad's brothers played. My uncle Colm was a club champion; uncle Brian was probably the worst golfer in the family and played off about 10; and dad was a club champion and Senior Cup (winner).
PK: What attracted you to the game? Why an individual rather than a team sport?
RM: I've always been very self-driven. I liked individual sport because I could motivate myself and you don't have to rely on anyone else, and I think that's been a trait of mine throughout the years. I've always wanted to 'own' it myself instead of having it dictated to me. It might just be my personality, but if I was in a dressing room at half time and someone was trying to dictate to me how to play I'd be like: "No, I'm going to play the way I want to play." And I don't know if that's from being an only child or just being in an individual sport my whole life.
PK: You mentioned Doral. You won a World Under 10 championship there?
PK: Which prompted an appearance on 'Kelly' (a UTV chat show hosted by Gerry Kelly) for the first time?
RM: Yeah, I won at Doral just before Christmas in 1998 and (Kelly) would have been in January 1999, something like that.
PK: Any memories of Kelly?
PK: Go on.
RM: Ach, I mean obviously I knew what they wanted me to do (he used to chip air balls into the washing machine at home so they replicated his mother's kitchen on the set.) And I remember being nervous because you have to do this interview. (Laughs) And when I look back on it now I still have that same nervous (whinny): "Yeahhh."
PK: How did it go down at school? It would have been a big deal?
RM: Yeah, I guess it would have been a big deal.
PK: Did you feel 'someone'?
RM: No, not at all.
PK: You didn't?
RM: I never felt someone in school.
RM: No, not even when I was 16 and doing what I was doing. Because I was away so much, I actually felt like I never fitted in. It (school) was never my forte. I was good enough to get by but I never excelled.
RM: Yeah, academically.
PK: I'm more interested in what it did for your self-esteem: 'There's Rory McIlroy. He was on Kelly!' That didn't register?
RM: No, not in school. At the golf club, yeah, I was the 'big man' - but not in school. Because at that stage golf wasn't cool, so I never felt like I fit in. And as time goes on, and you become a teenager, you want to fit in, but I was away so much playing golf that every time I came back to school I'd have missed out on something.
PK: You told Kelly you wanted to turn pro and win all the Majors.
RM: (Laughs) Yeah . . . oh dear.
PK: That was pretty aspirational.
RM: It was very aspirational. But at that point it was just something to say. I just wanted to be as good as I could be.
PK: What about the impact of the Troubles on your childhood? I've read that your great-uncle Joseph - your grandfather Jimmy's brother - was gunned down in the kitchen of his home in Belfast in 1972.
RM: I wasn't affected too much by the Troubles as they were mostly over by the time I was born. I don't know much about my great-uncle's shooting other than he was a Catholic man living in a Protestant area. I even think it was a case of mistaken identity. In Holywood, there was a mix of Protestant and Catholic families but everyone got along as far as I remember. It was a great place to grow up and religion and religious differences were rarely mentioned.
PK: You were 14 when I met you for the first time in Palm Springs.
PK: And the thing that struck me was how level-headed and focused you were. You weren't a messer.
RM: No. I guess I viewed it as a week where . . . It was the middle of February, the weather was crap back home and you're getting to go to Palm Springs! I remember Oliver Fisher was there, and Kiran Matharu, and Henni (Zuel), and it was a great week to practise and play golf and work on the things I'd been working on with Michael (Bannon, his coach since boyhood). And a real opportunity to learn.
PK: So you were pretty much set on golf as a career?
RM: I knew that I was going to leave school at 16. I'd had this rapid progression from 2004 to 2006 and went from being one of the kids to winning the Irish Boys, the Irish Youths, the Irish Amateur and getting invites to play in European Tour events. So at that point we had to go and have a chat with John Stephenson, who was the principal at Sullivan - or my mum and dad did - and the school were very good about it.
PK: You told a story this year before the Irish Open at the Convention Centre ('An Evening with Rory McIlroy') that was fascinating. You're driving home one night with your father as a teenager from the Mullingar Scratch Cup. That ring a bell?
PK: Go on.
RM: So, August 2006, and by that point I'm 16 and I've won the 'West' and the 'Close' and I'm basically the best amateur in Ireland. I had been travelling a lot - driving around Ireland with dad in a silver Mondeo - and had just won the Mullingar Scratch Cup. I should have been happy because I had lost in a play-off the year before, but I remember driving back and it was somewhere just over the border and I started to cry: "I'm not enjoying this anymore." I started to punch the window and just had this complete outburst.
RM: It was just one of those things where I'd almost got . . . desensitised. Winning should be the ultimate satisfaction - it's why you practise - but I'd won everything and wasn't getting the same sense of euphoria I'd had a couple of months previous. It was such a weird experience: I had won something, I should be happy, but I wasn't - very strange.
PK: How did your father respond?
RM: He was very good about it. He pulled over the car and just said: 'Look, you've got nothing on for the next week or two. We'll go home and you can take a few days off and see how you are then.' And I said, 'Yeah, I'll do that.' So I took two or three days off and . . . yeah, went back up to the golf club.
PK: What about your mother?
RM: I think the same thing: 'It will pass. Don't worry about it.' But inside they were probably thinking: 'Jesus! He's given up his schoolwork and everything to pursue this. And now he doesn't want to do it!'
PK: I'm struck by the contrast between the excited little kid, blinded by love as he races around Wentworth, and the teenager's brief disillusionment with the game.
PK: It was amazing it came back so quick.
RM: Impulsive, remember?
PK: (laughs) Okay, that makes sense.
3. Things that go bump in the night
Insomnia plagued him, and he'd end up awake for days. Bitici says that Tiger asked Rachel to meet him when he'd gone too long without sleep. Only after she arrived could he nod off. Bitici thinks Tiger just wanted a witness to his life. Not the famous life people saw from outside but the real one, where he kept the few things that belonged only to him.
'The Secret History of Tiger Woods'
PK: Tell me about the influence of the star Irish golfers. You met Darren (Clarke), I think, when you were nine years old at Portrush?
PK: A birthday present from your father?
RM: Yeah, Dad brought me up to play Portrush and all of a sudden I see Darren there on the old chipping green beside the car park with Paddy Gribben. He had just won the Matchplay at La Costa.
PK: Against Tiger.
Rory McIlroy with rival and friend Tiger Woods
RM: Against Tiger, which was massive, so I didn't even need to play the course, that (meeting Darren) was my whole birthday right there. He used to invite all the best juniors to Portmarnock every October weekend . . .
PK: Dermot Gilleece tells a story about that. ("I first saw Rory in Portmarnock when he was 13 at a Darren Clarke Foundation weekend. I'd heard about him - he had won the President's Prize the previous July in Holywood - but I couldn't believe how small he was. I remember on one of the par threes - I think it was the seventh - Clarke said: 'Okay Rory, show us what you've got.' And he hit a seven iron to about 10 feet.")
RM: I think Darren probably had the biggest influence on me as a kid. I didn't really know Graeme (McDowell) until I had turned pro, and Pádraig at that point was winning his Majors and in America a lot. So Darren was . . . I remember I got an invite to play the Spanish Open in 2007 as an amateur. I stayed with him on the Saturday night in London, played golf at Queenwood where he was a member, and we flew down on a private jet to Spain for the Tour event. So, yeah . . . I've gone through ebbs and flows over the last couple of years being very close with some of them, and then losing touch a bit, and then becoming close to them again. I definitely felt over the past 18 months that I became much closer with Darren than I was.
PK: That's interesting.
PK: Explain it.
RM: There was a little bit of a fallout when I left (ISM, the management group founded by Clarke's close friend, Chubby Chandler) in 2011, but people have to go their separate ways and with all the Ryder Cup stuff, we chatted a lot and spoke more than probably we ever have before, so that was good.
PK: What about Graeme? That went a bit frosty too for a while?
RM: Yeah, again, same thing. Obviously leaving the management company and the way it happened was messy enough, but we've smoothed that over. G-Mac is great. G-Mac has always been great. I spent a lot of time with Graeme when I first turned pro. He was always the one I played practice rounds with, and he really showed me the ropes. And I have always appreciated what he did for me in those early days.
PK: Didn't he write you a note once saying he loved you?
RM: Yeah, on the Sunday morning at Congressional (McIlroy's first Major win at the US Open in 2011). He was going out early and left it in my locker, and I read it before going out to play. I've got it (in a frame) in my house in Florida between a US Open flag with his signature and his picture (from McDowell's win at Pebble Beach in 2010) and a 2011 US Open flag of mine with a photo of me. It was a touch of class. He's a classy guy.
PK: What about Pádraig? Did you know him before the Open at Carnoustie in '07?
McIlroy with Padraig Harrington
RM: Not really. I remember being on the green and trying to control Paddy (Harrington's son) during the presentation. And I went to his house later that year - I think Dermot was there too and wrote a story about it - and it opened my eyes. He had his 'swing room' and his gym and his green in the back garden and I thought: 'Jeez, this guy goes to some lengths to play good golf!' It was like a playground - just brilliant. We went down to his basement with all his trophies, and for an 18-year-old just starting on Tour it was a great experience.
PK: One of the things we forget looking back on your career is the lows. You're not a child prodigy who has only known success.
RM: No, not at all.
PK: Take me back to 2008 and that first professional season.
RM: I've always been a bit of a home bird and found it difficult to adjust. I played OK in Abu Dhabi and Qatar but missed the cut in Dubai, and then I went out to Malaysia and missed the cut there. The next week we were in Korea - another missed cut - and I remember getting back (to the hotel) on the Friday evening. I had never been to a country that felt so alien to me. I felt so far away from home and remember sitting at the end of the bed with a box of Pringles from the minibar and crying . . . (he laughs) . . . and this was four months into the 2008 season.
PK: So not exactly ‘living the dream.’
RM: No, you’re on the road and you’re on your own and just feeling so alone. It was tough. I couldn’t wait to get on a flight home.
PK: But it doesn’t get as bad as the meltdown you had driving home from Mullingar?
RM: No, I never got discouraged. My dad would say: ‘You make your bed and you lie in it. This is your decision. This is what you wanted to do.’ And I was always going to follow it through, but there were times during those first seven or eight months that were very discouraging. I didn’t play a Major in 2008. I watched the Masters on TV, played the qualifier for the US Open and missed out, played the qualifier for the Open and missed out, and wasn’t high enough ranked to get into the PGA. So there were a few lows in 2008. That’s when I started to work with JP (Fitzgerald, his caddie).
PK: I was going to ask about that.
RM: Our first event was in Sweden (August 14): I hit the ball great but putted terribly and missed the cut. The next week was Holland — the KLM Open — didn’t hit the ball as good and missed the cut again. The next week Michael (Bannon) came out to Gleneagles for the Johnnie Walker Championship and I did a lot of good practice but missed the cut. So I’ve missed the first three cuts in a row.
PK: With JP?
PK: But when we think of him now it’s ‘that jammy bastard!’
RM: (laughs) Yeah, but he had to persevere.
PK: What was the turning point?
RM: We went home and he came up to Belfast and we worked with Michael and got some good practice in. And it was frustrating because all of the positive signs I was showing on the range I could not translate to the course. Then we went to Switzerland (for the Omega Masters). I was 95th in the Order of Merit, and 210th in the World, and I shot 63 on the first day and thought: ‘Thank God!’
PK: You might have won that tournament.
RM: Yeah, got beaten in a play-off, but that was the moment. I played well in the British Masters, played well in the Alfred Dunhill, played well in the Portugal Masters, went to Hong Kong and lost in a play-off and finished third in the South African Open. And at the end of that year — from 210th at the start of September — I was 40th in the world.
PK: A couple of months later — February 2009 — you won your first tournament in Dubai.
PK: And then you played in your first Masters.
PK: Had you met Tiger at that stage?
PK: When was the first time?
RM: That time I went to Palm Springs in 2004. I went down for a day to test some Titleist stuff in San Diego — I’d played junior golf with Peter Uihlein (the Titleist president’s son) — and was introduced to him briefly as he was on his way out.
PK: ‘Hello, goodbye’?
RM: Yeah, pretty much.
PK: What about the first time as a pro?
RM: The first time I played with Tiger was an exhibition thing on the Wednesday afternoon at Memorial in (June) 2010. I had won (my first) PGA tour event at that point but I’m not sure what he thought of me.
PK: But nothing in 2009?
RM: He’d had surgery on his knee after the US Open (in 2008) so he didn’t come back for a while. Was he playing? The Masters might have been the first time he came back, but I didn’t really have any experiences with him. And then he had his whole thing in November that year.
PK: That’s where I’m going: Where were you when Tiger hit the fire hydrant?
RM: The European Tour season had just finished and I was spending December at home in Northern Ireland. The first thing (we heard) was: ‘Tiger Woods has been in a car accident.’ I thought: ‘Holy shit! Has he been injured?’ And then as things started to come out we got the bigger picture.
PK: We spoke earlier about the corrosive nature of fame.
PK: This is a quote from Michael Bamberger’s book ‘Men in Green’: ‘I have heard Palmer, Nicklaus and Watson all say the same thing, each in his own way: I wouldn’t trade places with Tiger Woods for all the money in the world.’
PK: Is that something you’ve thought about much?
RM: I’ve seen it first-hand. I’ve seen what his life is like in Florida. I’ve played golf with him and said: ‘What are you doing tonight? Do you want to come and have dinner with us?’ And he can’t. He just can’t. And for me that’s unfathomable. I could not live like that.
RM: I could not live like that. If someone was to say, ‘You can have 14 Majors and 70 wins but have to deal with that, or nine Majors and 40 wins and stay somewhat the same as you are’, I’d take the second option all day.
McIlroy with Jack Nicklaus
PK: Here’s a quote on the same theme from Jack Nicklaus: ‘Every player has got to find the balance between ambition and sanity. Now, were Major championships my focus? Yes. Were they my sole focus in life? No — my family always came before that. Could I have worked harder and won more Majors? Probably. Could I have driven myself crazy doing it? Absolutely.’
PK: Now you’ve pretty much said the same.
RM: Yeah, a lot of what he says resonates with me. Could you work harder? Yes. Could you spend 12 hours a day at the course? Absolutely. Would it make you any happier? No. And at the end of the day what do you want to be? There are certain goals I want to achieve: I want a career Grand Slam. I want to become the best ever European player, records-wise — Faldo has that at the minute — and maybe get to double-digit Majors. They are long-term goals, and of course I want to achieve them, but I don’t want to sacrifice my happiness at the same time.
RM: But I definitely feel I can achieve those things and have a balanced life.
PK: You’ve spent time with Jack?
RM: I have.
PK: You’ve sought his counsel a few times?
RM: I don’t know if I’ve sought his counsel or he’s offered it to me.
RM: As I said, I like to take ownership of things myself but I see Jack a lot in Florida because I’m a member of his golf club, and I always take what he has to say on board — I don’t take all of it, but I take most of it on board. He’s the most successful golfer of all time — 18 Major championships — but he also had the best balance between golf and family. He rarely spent more than two weeks away from home, and if he did, he’d make sure to spend the next two weeks at home — that was always his priority. But he needed Barbara (his wife) there. Barbara was the one that raised the kids and he acknowledges that.
PK: Go back to Tiger, because he’s interesting on so many levels. You’ve spent time with him?
PK: How close did you get?
RM: Close enough that we could tell each other things that you would only tell your friends, so pretty close.
PK: Stupid question, but you like him?
RM: I’m drawn to him, yeah. He’s an intriguing character because you could spend two hours in his company and see four different sides to him. When he’s comfortable and he trusts you — and his trust (sensitivity) is way (higher) than mine — he’s great. He’s thoughtful. He’s smart. He reads. He can’t sleep so that’s all he does — he reads stuff and educates himself on everything. But he struggles to sleep, which I think is an effect of overtraining, so I tell him to calm down sometimes. He’d be texting me at four o’clock in the morning: ‘Up lifting. What are you doing?’
RM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RM: Erica actually got pissed off with it. He was texting me in the middle of the night and I was like, ‘Tiger is in the gym’.
PK (laughs): I’m with Erica.
RM: And he’s so competitive. I remember being out to dinner with him in New York after this thing we had done for Nike. It was September ’14 but obviously the Masters was (on his radar) and he says: ‘I’m not going to let you win that slam.’ I said: ‘You’re not going to beat me.’ So we had this back-and-forth about some of the guys he’s beaten to win Majors and I said: ‘You’ve never had to face someone like me.’ So there’s a competitiveness there, but I feel like he respects me.
PK: You obviously watched (his comeback) recently?
RM: I watched a good bit of it. I’m intrigued. I thought he swung it great. And he was smiling on the course and looked happy to be out there, which is great.
PK: Because there was speculation he would never play again?
RM: Yeah, and the reports I was hearing weren’t great . . . he could only practise every other day . . . he wasn’t hitting drivers yet . . . his back wasn’t great . . . but (his swing) looked smooth and rhythmic. It looked good. I mean, he’s never going to be the Tiger of nearly two decades ago but you can’t expect that.
RM: Even if he was healthy, you wouldn’t expect that. But he’s out there and he’s playing and he seems to be competitive and we’ll see where it goes.
- NEXT WEEK: Four Majors, a Wedding and Augusta Fever.
Sunday Indo Sport