Sunday 18 March 2018

Sheer likeability adds another layer to Rory's greatness

Our Major stars have proved nice guys don't always finish last, says Dermot Gilleece

While going through the almost compulsory quest for influential role models, the feeling persists that Rory McIlroy would have reached the top all on his own. Yet timely support here at home from three fellow Major champions undoubtedly made the journey a lot less arduous.

In their own way, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Pádraig Harrington had the generosity of spirit to welcome him into their world. Which couldn't have been easy, especially with the knowledge that it wouldn't be long before he was leaving them in his slipstream.

Perhaps the explanation is to be found in something Denmark's seasoned campaigner, Anders Hansen, noticed on the putting green at the British Masters five years ago. According to America's online Global Golf Post, everything came so naturally to "this curly-haired kid", that Hansen immediately sensed he was observing someone special.

Speaking in Dubai last weekend, the 42-year-old added: "What makes Rory even more admirable is that he's one of the nicest guys out here. I wouldn't say that of a lot of them (fellow professionals), but he is really that nice. He's a good boy who carries his stardom better than anyone I know in any sport. I can't think of anyone who comes close."

In truth, Ireland's current Major champions all give the lie to the notion that nice guys finish last. Granted, it took Clarke a bit longer to get there, but it is greatly to his credit that he has finally found a manner which makes his undoubted talent easier to admire.

Major champions, in my experience, fit into three main personality groups. There are the intense loners such as Nick Faldo, Vijay Singh, Bernhard Langer and Tiger Woods, who followed the iconic lead of Ben Hogan. Not quite so forbidding is the highly competitive yet less aloof grouping, which would include Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Peter Thomson, Hale Irwin and Gary Player.

The largest grouping comprises the most amenable ones who, interestingly, were not the most successful. They include Seve Ballesteros, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Phil Mickelson, who would have been identified with gregarious, legendary figures such as Walter Hagen and Jimmy Demaret. The Irish would fit comfortably here.

On May 4, 1999, Gerry McIlroy gave his son the 10th birthday treat of a trip to Royal Portrush. It marked the youngster's first meeting with Clarke who was practising there with Walker Cup player, Paddy Gribben. "When I began chipping and putting, Darren just said 'keep doing that'," McIlroy recalled. "I met him again at his Foundation in 2002. That was when he called me over and said, 'Rory, anything you want or need, just give me a call'. And he handed me his number. I was a 13-year-old with Clarke's number! That was quite special."

This was when a diminutive frame, topped by a cherubic face and unruly hair, stood on the tee of the short seventh at Portmarnock. "Okay Rory," said Clarke, "show us what you've got." With that, the youngster hit a seven iron about 160 yards to within eight feet of the pin. And Clarke smiled at me and said: "Look out for this kid."

So it was that McIlroy proceeded to ring his mentor from time to time, "to ask for advice or just to say congratulations when he (Clarke) had done well."

January 2008 and he was in the kitchen of Harrington's home in south Dublin. It was lunchtime and the host was recalling how his guest had volunteered to keep four-year-old Paddy Harrington amused at Carnoustie the previous July while mother, Caroline, attempted to follow her husband's progress against Sergio Garcia in a play-off for the Open Championship. "Not many 18-year-olds would have done that," said the champion.

While a photoshoot involving both players was being organised, McIlroy looked at Simply the Best, a book about Jack Nicklaus and one of two lying on the breakfast bar. Remarking on early photographs of Nicklaus generating serious power from a full shoulder turn, the two players knowledgeably noted that the great man had gone beyond such athleticism by the time either of them had set eyes on him. But as things turned out, the passing years would not be a factor when McIlroy got to do some invaluable brain-picking of the Bear, after taking up residence last year in West Palm Beach.

Later on that January day, the conversation turned to cars and the teenager talked about the C-Class Mercedes coupé he had bought his parents for Christmas. And about the house he had bought for himself near Belfast. All this in only three months as a professional.

Harrington remarked: "My goals and targets were all self-generated. I never wanted to be like anybody other than myself." McIlroy responded: "I like to study how a player manages himself. Pádraig has had a lot on his plate for the last four months and he seems to have handled it well."

Taking in the various practice aids which Harrington had, inside and outside his house, the younger man went on to remark with stunning insight: "If I had all of this, it would be difficult for me to come home and get away from golf for a week. I'd probably give in to temptation and start tinkering. After three or four weeks on the road, I envisage putting the clubs away and not playing for a week. Getting away completely. Even in the middle of the season."

Not yet out of his teens, he had already worked out a formula for life on tour which appears to be serving him rather well, judging by his successes this year.

On Friday afternoon during US Open week 2010, the same player cut a sorry figure, heading for a flight home from Pebble Beach after crushing rounds of 75 and 77. "Of course I'm disappointed, but there will be other opportunities," he said bleakly. But McDowell, who would become champion two days later, considered it appropriate to leave his compatriot with some harsh truths ringing in his ears.

"Rory plays gung-ho golf," he said. "He doesn't put a lot of thought into what he does. But this is the US Open, and I don't care who you are, if you get out of position on this golf course, you're not going to get the ball up and down."

McIlroy listened and learned, and set records when winning the same title 12 months later. In the meantime, he couldn't resist a little jab at the newly-crowned champion. "Congratulations on winning your national open," he texted, by way of taunting his fellow Northerner about his extraordinary Alabama/Portrush accent.

Only good friends could do those things to each other. And less than four months later, their closeness was very much in evidence as Ryder Cup partners at Celtic Manor. And when they shared in an even more dramatic European triumph at Medinah nine weeks ago, McDowell said of him: "He beats the hell out of me every time we play. So talented. My great friend and the greatest player on the planet."

Humility, they say, is truth. And the rising Holywood star saw it as entirely natural to scorn false modesty while openly aspiring to become the best player in the world. To do otherwise would have been to deny his very raison d'etre.

Greatness isn't always packaged so attractively. Which could make the fact of simply being so likeable McIlroy's greatest achievement.

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