This is an updated version of a story that first was published on Nov. 4, 2019.
Rory McIlroy was one of a handful of top players involved in a HSBC junior clinic on the eve of last winter’s WGC-HSBC Champions. Such were his extra duties as the world No. 2 (who has since ascended to world No. 1) that there came a point when players and spectators alike had mostly headed for home and the only person left on the range was an 18-month-old child.
Though the proud father was well aware that McIlroy was still around, he was not about to be pushy. Instead, things must have worked out precisely as he would have wished as McIlroy’s eyes were drawn to this infant with a seemingly insatiable appetite for golf. His backswing was less than conventional – he would look up to check that he still had his parent’s attention – but the follow-through was an astonishingly healthy swish which a smiling McIlroy was moved to imitate.
McIlroy saw himself in that child.
“I was that age when I started,” he said, by way adding to our conversation which, at one point, had touched on what mattered in a child’s golfing journey. Did he, for instance, think that a supportive family and good golfing fundamentals were on a par?
He took no more than a second to think about it. “The supportive family is the more important,” he decided.
In his eyes, his father, Gerry, got things 100 percent right in that he never put him under pressure to play. “It was the other way round in our relationship. … My father would be tired out after work but I would be begging him to take me to the practice ground. (There was one memorable occasion when Gerry said, “No,” only for Rory to win the day with an aside along the lines that his own father didn’t seem to want him to be any good.)
McIlroy believes that Gerry’s most telling contribution was to know when the time was right to hand him across to Michael Bannon, the coach with whom he works to this day. “Michael became like a second father to me and it’s still like that. It matters more to him that I am swinging well than that I win. To him, the wins are a by-product of my playing as he wants me to play.”
He loves Bannon for being as understated as he is. “There have been times when we’ve told him to get himself out there, to take advantage of the platform that he’s got at the moment. He’s done it a bit, but he doesn’t find it easy; it’s not him.”
Rory pays the same “understated” compliment to Erica, his wife.
He is so happy to have added to his family with a woman who, having worked for the PGA, truly understands him and his career. “Professional golf is such a lonely pursuit. I’ve always been able to share what I’ve done in the game with my parents but now I’ve got Erica as well. She makes the good days better and the bad days not so bad.”
After Dubai, the couple were heading back to Ireland for the Christmas period. They were then planning on a return to their Florida property for the first few months of 2020 before switching to the new home they might buy in London by way of a base from May through October every year. Now, you would have to assume that all such arrangements have had to be reviewed.
McIlroy’s growing up in golf has been a very public affair and he admits that he’s got the odd thing wrong along the way. “There are times when my impulses get the better of me and I might come out with something I would never say if we were talking as we are now.” he said. “When you are chatting, you can fine-tune your thoughts as you go along.
“The remarks I made directly after the Dunhill about European Tour courses not being tough enough were badly timed and I regretted them. My critics were right. Tougher courses wouldn’t have been vaguely appropriate at an event involving amateurs. My mistake was in failing to think beyond the Dunhill and the Renaissance, where the Scottish Open was held. There are other stopping points on the European Tour – Golf National and Dubai to name but two – which are plenty tough enough.
“Now that I’ve had time to think about it, the best way I can find to explain why I disagree with easy courses is to liken them to exams which everyone in the field can pass with his eyes shut. I know this is going to sound a bit ‘geekish,’ but I believe in proper shot values. You should be penalised if you hit into the rough, etc.”
For an occasion when those instincts of his were kept nicely in check, there is no need to go back any further than to what Brooks Koepka said recently. Namely, about not seeing Rory as a particular rival.
“His remarks did fire me up a bit but, hey, we’re out here for a long time and Brooks and I get on well. There was no point in retaliating to a Koepka comment which just might, like one of my own, have slipped out unthinkingly. We all do it.”
That McIlroy was seeing himself in Koepka was not too different from the way he had looked at that little boy on the range who, incidentally, was still swinging away.
At some point, McIlroy had dispatched his manager to buy a red tournament flag so that he could sign it for the family.
They laid it down on a nearby table and McIlroy checked on the infant’s name before applying a bit of thought to the wording of his message.
“To Dom … “Keep it up and see you on Tour soon!”
Top Photo: Sam Greenwood, Getty Images
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