From the lofty heights of his throne atop the world of golf, Rory McIlroy needs look no further than his own Belfast backyard for a salutary reminder of how, if he and those around him aren’t careful, it could all go downhill from here.
Like McIlroy, fellow Northern Irishman George Best was also a massive talent. But the addictions to booze and excess that Manchester United’s star developed in the Swinging Sixties prevented him from reaching his full potential. When he died in 2005 at age 59, obituaries recalled not just Best’s football skills, but also the legendary tale of how a hotel waiter delivering champagne to the playboy’s room was said to have found him entertaining Miss World, prompting the sad question, “Mr. Best, where did it all go wrong?”
2011 U.S. OPEN
Rory McIlroy set 12 new scoring records in his big victory at Congressional.
In his own sport and era, McIlroy also has Tiger Woods as the ultimate example of how the mega-fame and wealth that come with a truck-load of major golf titles can cost a man his soul.
From his earliest days as a kid who impressed everyone with both his game and his polite, grounded demeanor until now, as golf’s new post-Woods messiah, McIlory has never shown hints of having the same human flaws and frailties that derailed Best and the 14-time major winner whose golfing records he has started to obliterate.
Quite the opposite. As far as anyone on the outside can really know these things, McIlroy’s definition of a good time isn’t losing himself with porn stars but going home to family, friends and dogs Theo and Gus.
Woods had his superyacht, “Privacy.” McIlroy, in contrast, turned up unannounced this year to watch his former school, Sullivan Upper, win the final of a Northern Ireland rugby competition for under-15s. He reminded himself that golf isn’t everything by going before the U.S. Open to the poverty and disaster-ravaged Caribbean island nation of Haiti, where his prowess with irons and a driver don’t mean a jot.
McIlroy enjoys a lubricated night out with friends in Belfast, sometimes tweets about knocking back fiery cocktails and posted a photo of himself draining a drink from his U.S. Open trophy.
But he’s also the type of guy who, when asked by an acquaintance to autograph a shirt for a fundraising auction, hopped into his car to deliver it in person, who donated a wad of money to fix up facilities for juniors at the club outside Belfast where he learned golf as a kid and who didn’t recoil when he drove to another local club last year to practice only to find hordes of youngsters clamoring for his attention and handouts.
“They’re all standing around the Ferrari, he had a Ferrari at the time,” McIlroy’s coach, Michael Bannon, recalled in a recent interview. “He signed everything and then he stood up at the end and said, ‘Right, is that everybody done now?’ He was just making sure that everybody got something.”
McIroy has always been well-mannered, Bannon added, “his mum wouldn’t let him (get) away with too much if he wasn’t.”
The coming months and years will test McIlroy’s character like never before. The dominant manner of his first victory in a major, rather than just the win itself, could mean that McIlroy’s life will never be the same again. Certainly, fans will never look at him in the same way again. In crushing the U.S. Open field with his record-setting performance, McIlroy raised expectations to levels once reserved for Woods. And Woods showed how easy it can be to fall from such heights, how the seedy temptations that come with stardom can blur even the most focused of minds.
With someone less grounded, one might fear that the pressures and distractions could send 22-year-old McIlroy’s moral compass haywire, too. But he, as Woods did as a kid, has been picturing such moments in his mind for years, so he has had plenty of time to prepare.
“It’s always going to be difficult for anyone,” says John Stevenson, the recently retired principal of Sullivan Upper in the Belfast suburb of Holywood where McIlroy was a star pupil.
“There’s a huge level of expectation there, and that’s big for anybody. But I can honestly say, you know, that if anyone is capable of handling that, Rory’s the guy because he’s been working toward this since he was a very young boy.”
McIlroy is well-surrounded, too, by his parents who worked all hours to fund the golfing ambitions of their only child and by longtime friends who remind “Rors” that he’s just a humble lad from humble Northern Irish roots, who would bring him back to Earth with a bump if he ever shows signs of getting a big head and who politely but firmly rebuff reporters looking for insight about McIlroy.
He also has the protective arm of his agent, Chubby Chandler, on his young shoulders.
“We’ve got a responsibility to make sure he keeps loving the game and that he don’t burn out,” he says. “You know I’ve never handled anybody like him, but you’ve seen people burn out. We’re not going to let it happen to him.”
“He wants to play golf. He loves playing golf and hanging out with his mates and whatever, so what will be will be. He still doesn’t want a logo. He’s not caught up in that,” Chandler adds.
Let’s hope, for his happiness and that of golf, that McIlroy stays that way. When his career is done, McIlroy will be measured not only by how many majors he won but also by how true he remained to the freckled, disheveled young man who charmed the checkered pants off his sport by handling defeat and victory with equal grace and by insisting that, in the bigger scheme of things, he’s only someone who hits “a little white ball around a field sometimes.”
Because if he loses himself in the process, all that golfing history McIlroy’s going to make won’t mean half as much.