In between photographs, Rory McIlroy sticks a seven-iron between his legs and starts playing keepy-uppy with a golf ball. In the members' bar of the Holywood Golf Club, he attempts to turn a switch on and off by chipping 20 feet at the socket on the wall.
It is the sort of larking about you would expect from an 18-year-old and McIlroy is so full of youthful enthusiasm that, once outside, he cannot resist launching a drive into orbit. A mighty crack carries it over the fairways towards some houses. "Trees. It'll be fine," he says.
In his jeans and trainers, and with the tousled mop of hair that led one Australian journalist recently to describe him as "a hobbit", McIlroy does not look ready to go head-to- head with Tiger Woods, but there is no mistaking the seriousness of purpose when he sits down to discuss his ambitions.
"I'm not afraid of speaking my mind," he said. "I know my ability. I have no problem in coming out and saying, 'I am going to be one of the best golfers in the world in the next five years.'"
If that sounds arrogant, McIlroy is anything but, as he proves over an engaging couple of hours at his local club just outside Belfast. His agent, Andrew 'Chubby' Chandler, recently visited Alex Ferguson to pick the Manchester United manager's brains on the difficulties of handling child prodigies. He wanted to understand how he might ward McIlroy away from the dark side of fame, wealth and adulation, as Ferguson has been required to do with David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs.
You have to admire Chandler's diligence, but there appears to be little to worry about. McIlroy seems too balanced, too grounded and, best of all, too in love with his sport to be turning up at the wrong end of the 'News of the World'.
He still regards golf as a game rather than a profession and is young enough to talk enthusiastically even about long-haul travel and living out of a suitcase.
It would be too simplistic to say that McIlroy just goes out and whacks it, but he is at the stage where the sport seems relatively simple. He has yet to consult a sports psychologist, which must put him in a very small minority on the professional circuit. "Maybe I will in the future. Maybe as your career goes on, you start thinking about it too much," he said. "But with my game, I just go out and shoot the best score possible. I don't really care how I do it, how it looks. I'm just going for a good score."
It is an approach that helped him to produce one of the most memorable rounds at this year's Open Championship to finish as the leading amateur, turn professional two months later and then secure his 2008 Tour card in record time. The natural ease of his swing has made him the most talked-about rookie since Sergio Garcia.
All the more encouraging, then, that McIlroy declares himself frustrated. "I know I should be happy with my year but I am used to winning, to getting a trophy at the end of it," he said. "In '05 and '06, I won pretty much everything I entered. That is part of life for me. I don't want to change that now I am playing for money."
His idea of hell, he declares, is to become one of those anonymous tour pros who make a tidy living out of the game without ever threatening to land the big prizes.
"I get the feeling that some guys don't mind if they throw away a tournament if there is still a good paycheque, but I would be devastated," he said. "It is about trying to win."
The rigours of the Tour may yet grind down McIlroy's competitive spirit -- and show him merely to be very good rather than great -- but two top-five finishes in his first weeks as a professional (Justin Rose missed his first 23 cuts) have done nothing to reduce expectations.
As he heads into 2008, many are tipping him to become the youngest player in Ryder Cup history when Nick Faldo leads his team to Valhalla in Louisville, Kentucky, in September. McIlroy plays down his chances, but we should not be shocked if it happens. He has done everything in golf at a prodigious speed.
His father Gerry was a scratch player and his job as bar manager at the Holywood meant that Rory has known the clubhouse inside out since he was a toddler.
"I've been coming up here since I was one, hitting the ball around the bar with plastic clubs," he said. As Michael Bannon, his coach since childhood, put it: "Rory's been playing golf so long it is like holding a knife and fork".
On the day we meet, Gerry serves up lunch and then a few quiet words of advice to his son about practising over Christmas. Their closeness is touching.
"My parents have never been pushy, just encouraging," Rory said.
McIlroy got his first hole in one at the age of nine and, with his parents working overtime to pay for the flights, travelled to the United States to win a world U-10s title. Trophy followed trophy and there is a picture of McIlroy at the top of the stairs at Holywood in which he is barely visible behind a forest of silverware.
Move into the bar and there is his card from Carnoustie in July, where he recorded his opening 68, the only player not to have a bogey -- not bad going for his first-ever round in a major.
"That was nerve-racking on the first tee but as the day went on, I got more and more crowds and I enjoyed it," he said. "I love the buzz of it all. Seeing myself on the back pages of the newspapers on the Friday morning was pretty cool, and it really propelled me into the spotlight. I was known in Ireland, but that got me noticed in England and elsewhere."
It was also the first time he had come across Woods.
"I was on the putting green and Tiger scooped a couple of my balls out of the cup," McIlroy said. "That was really cool."
It has not all been plain sailing, though. McIlroy scored an 83 in the first round at the South Africa Open a few weeks ago. A high hitter of the ball, he suffered in the strong wind.
"It really got to me a bit, an 83," he said.
"How can you shoot 83? That's just horrendous. I started to dwell on it, but I have to understand it is part of the game not to let one round get you down. You'll have bad days at the office. Sergio shot 89 at Carnoustie [in the Open] one year.
"I used to be quite temperamental. I broke a couple of clubs at 14, 15, put a couple of holes in bags. But I was never that bad.
"I didn't lose clubs up trees."
His temperament is almost as impressive as his swing and if there is anything to work on in the short term, it is his physique. When we meet, he is still feeling sore from a session at the gym.
"I want to look like an athlete on the course," he said. "Tiger might be the best golfer but what he's done with his body is incredible. It is about giving yourself the best opportunity to win."
Apart from weightlifting, McIlroy has been spending time over Christmas with his girlfriend. It is a stark reminder of his youth when he announces that he will have to dash from the interview (in his BMW with personalised numberplate) to pick her up from school.
He has also been fitting out the new house that he bought recently just down the road from his parents in Holywood -- a purchase that 'The Sun' announced on the front page of its edition in the North to give him a first lesson in tabloid fame.
"I think they got every single fact wrong, including the price," he said.
The furniture so far consists of only a pool table and a bean bag.
"The last few months have been bit of a whirlwind," he confesses.
Soon it is back on the road and back to competition. Gerry has been telling his son that he has to take it one tournament at a time, but young McIlroy has not been able to resist plotting what he needs to qualify for the Masters, the Open and perhaps even the Ryder Cup.
"I don't know if other people will take that as cocky," he said, "because I'm not."
And he isn't, if only because he cannot possibly know yet how good he might be. (© The Times, London)