Family guys: how Gerry McIlroy is his son’s secret weapon
When it comes to Sports Dads raising future champions, there appear to be two main schools of thought - the Marc O’Hair one and the method favoured by Gerry McIlroy.
The former is the father of PGA tour player Sean O’Hair, a solid top-level pro who was a childhood prodigy growing up in his native Texas.
Gerry McIlroy, is (of course) father to Rory, who has just won another Major, picture below, winning his dad and three of his friends a €252,000 jackpot on a bet they made when Rory was just 15. But while Rory and Sean are both very talented golfers and near contemporaries (at 32, O’Hair Jnr is a few years older than Rory) — their experiences of growing up with ‘Sports Dads’ could hardly have been more different.
Marc O’Hair set out to raise a champion. And his method was straight out of the Tough Love playbook.
Richard Williams, hard-driving father of tennis champs Serena and Venus, is perhaps the most famous Sports Dad of recent years, using techniques such as getting neighbours in his South LA neighbourhood to shout criticisms at his young daughters as they practised on local courts, reasoning that this would toughen them up for tournament play.
However, Williams has always had a very strong relationship with his daughters, something that Marc and Sean O’Hair lost on their fraught journey to the top.
O’Hair was obsessive and demanding. When his son Sean was competing in junior tournaments, the deal was that the young teen would have to run one mile home for every shot over par.
The father sold the family business to back his son’s development, but got his teenager to sign two contracts, turning over 10pc of any future earnings to daddy.
“I told him, ‘I can’t blow this kind of money without a return,’” O’Hair told one reporter after his son had graduated to the PGA tour.
“‘When you make it, there has to be payback someday.’”
As it turned out, Sean did go on to be a winner on the tour. But his relationship with his father broke down. And also very publicly, with the father releasing statements about his son’s earnings to the press.
When he last spoke about the matter, O’Hair Jnr (now a father of four young children himself) revealed they hadn’t talked in years.
It’s a tragic and all-too-familiar tale. The obsessive, ultra-demanding Sports Parent who drives their talented child so hard that it profoundly damages their relationship.
Which makes the story of Gerry and Rory McIlroy all the more remarkable.
Those who know them well say McIlroy Snr was never the archetypal Sports Dad, the kind who drives eight-year-old girls to be Wimbledon champions or stands pitch-side at kids’ GAA games all over the country every weekend, screaming ‘support’ from the side-lines.
A talented golfer himself, Gerry McIlroy would often take his toddler son, in his stroller, to watch him hit balls at their local course.
Dad later worked in the bar at the same Holywood course, one of the many jobs he took to support Rory’s budding amateur career. Gerry delighted in seeing his only child show a precocious love of — and talent for — the game. And friends say he offered just the right mix of support and space to let Rory blossom.
When Rory won the US Open in 2011 (on Father’s Day), his fellow Ulsterman Darren Clarke knew where some of the credit should go.
“Rory’s parents, Rosie and Gerry, are the biggest reasons he is the way he is,” said Clarke. “They are such normal, down-to-earth and genuinely nice people. They have sacrificed a lot for their son — as most parents of pro golfers have — and I know he is very grateful”.
Gerry had caddied for his Rory until he was 17, but then backed off as his son prepared to go pro. And when Rory won that US Open title, his proud father was in the crowd to see every stroke. But he kept his counsel. There were no shouted words of encouragement or advice, no “that’s my boy!” grandstanding for the media as his son strode to victory.
The annals of sports (and especially individual sports such as tennis and golf) are littered with tales of over-ambitious, over-bearing fathers.
Some parents do get it right. Judy Murray, mother of tennis star Andy, played a huge part in the success of her son (and continues to do so, their relationship may have its moments of friction, but they are known for being fiercely loyal and protective of each other). A tennis player and coach of some distinction herself, she helped Andy and his older brother Jamie both become Wimbledon champs (Jamie in the mixed-doubles in 2007).
Yet her reward was headlines calling her “The Most Annoying Woman In Sport”. It seems that some parents — and especially mothers — just can’t win.
With Rory McIlroy, family legend has it that he picked up his first club at two years of age and hit a 40-yard drive. His father has talked of Rory, as a very young child, pestering him to be taken to the local course every day. Birthday and Christmas presents were always a new club. When he was four, his father gave him a cut-down iron and showed him the correct grip. The family tell a story of the golf-mad kid taking his club to bed with him that night and holding it with the grip he had been shown by his father as he drifted off to sleep.
Gerry McIlroy appears to have been blessed with a naturally gifted son who, from the moment he could walk, loved the sport he did. If anything, with even more passion and dedication.
His gift to his son was unswerving support and the good sense to let the young boy have the space he needed to develop his precocious skills.
As those who know the family say, Gerry McIlroy may have been a Sports Dad.
But first and foremost, he has always been a father.