Define pressure. Is it leading the Masters by four shots with a round to go or taking an eight-shot lead into the last day of the US Open? All were huge moments in the annus mirabilis of Holywood’s favourite son, Rory McIlroy. But surely the tousled-haired tiger from the shores of Belfast Lough would have trembled just a bit in the face of questioning from the eight and nine-year-olds in class P-5 at his old primary school, St Patrick’s.
As I watch 28 youngsters put the finishing touches to their paintings of Rory – or Roar-y as one lad has dubbed him – I feel a tug on my sleeve and face the toughest question any adult can face on a cold December morning as Christmas trees go up around the small County Down town.
“Is Santa Claus real?” enquires a small boy, wide-eyed with expectation. Several heads turn my way as they await the answer from the mysterious stranger and his photographer. The press would never lie. The answer is simple, of course. How could Santa Claus be anything but real for children sitting in a school where a young boy like themselves had once painted his own version of Monet’s London Fog and then gone on to become a global sporting icon and a multi-millionaire?
McIlroy’s life has changed utterly since he slew the demons of his famous “Masters meltdown” with that record-smashing US Open win at Congressional Country Club. But for the people who have known him since the days when he made the 10-minute walk up Church View to school from the modest, two-up, two-down terraced house where he once lived with his parents Rosie and Gerry, he’s still the same Rory McIlroy.
Yes, his life is very different now and he’s only an occasional visitor to his old haunts such as the golf club, the local pub or even the local barber’s. The boy is becoming a man, but he’s still recognisable as the polite, unassuming lad he was when he hit balls in assembly in St Patrick’s after winning the World Under-10 championship.
“Hasn’t changed a bit,” says Nelson Greer, the barman at the Dirty Duck Alehouse where you could get a pint of ‘Rory McIlroy Victory Ale’ shortly after Congressional. “He still comes in occasionally for lunch with one of his pals. Still the same lad, though I don’t think he’s too worried about where his next shilling is coming from.”
The Rory Corner
There’s a Rory McIlroy Corner in the Dirty Duck these days, a cosy alcove near the bar with framed pictures of the young champ. As the Friday crowd rolls in for lunch, there’s plenty of interest in Rory’s performance in the Hong Kong Open, which he went on to win holing that stunning, 72nd hole bunker shot. The locals expect Rory to win despite the disappointment of his performance alongside Graeme McDowell in the final round of the previous Sunday’s World Cup. But it wasn’t always that way.
“When he lost the Masters, it made me think he might never win a Major,” says customer Brian Johnston, a 23-handicapper at Bangor, where McIlroy’s coach Michael Bannon is the club professional. “At that stage he hadn’t proved that he had the temperament to win a Major, but it looks like he has the temperament now. He took his defeat brilliantly and that US Open win was just magnificent. I think he’s going to be world No.1 and he doesn’t seem to have changed very much. There’s a lot of pride in Rory’s achievements here and rightfully so.”
What certainly hasn’t changed is the famous McIlroy swagger we see on TV screens week after week. There’s a confidence there, no doubt, but for his former primary school principal Martin Meyler, the walk betrays McIlroy’s inherent self-consciousness and shyness – not arrogance. “He just breezed through school life,” recalls the now retired headmaster. “Nothing seemed to faze him at all. When it came to doing the ‘11-Plus’ and all the parents and children would be so worried, he just took it in his stride and of course, he got it. He’s always had coolness, that balanced temperament. He never forced anything. That time he went to pieces at the Augusta Masters, he quickly composed himself. That would have affected other people for years afterwards, but not Rory. He had the inner confidence to get himself back on track again.”
McIlroy is seen as cocky by some, but for his former headmaster, it’s not that straightforward. “When he is walking up the fairways towards the green, he has got a little swagger and a bounce about him. Padraig Harrington has it as well. But that’s not arrogance, you know. It’s self-consciousness. “Rory was always a fairly shy lad and he knows all those spectators are looking at him and I would put that down to self-consciousness, not big-headedness or arrogance or the fact that everybody knows he is the best, because Rory doesn’t think like that. I can see that self-consciousness in him. It’s just like he was at school. And I think that’s why the Americans like him. People criticise him for going to live in America or whatnot, but that’s just Rory growing up and heading off to find his own way. It’s time to let go a little bit and allow Rory to discover the world for himself.”
The school still takes great pride in McIlroy’s achievements and a framed version of Monet’s London Fog, painted by McIlroy and three classmates in 1999, still hangs proudly there. Naturally, his presence is everywhere at Holywood Golf Club, which has enjoyed a small boom in green fee income in the wake of his Congressional victory. In fact, the club is about to undertake a £250,000 upgrade to the bar, restaurant and lounge, complete with a section dedicated to McIlroy’s achievements.
The Rory buzz
“It’s been really buzzing here,” says Nicola Laffin, who works in the restaurant. “Since Rory won the US Open, the amount of American and Irish people coming here has been just amazing. A few weeks ago we had a couple drive all the way up from Tipperary so their two wee boys could play on the course because they are Rory fanatics. So I got Rory to sign two wee autographs and send them down to them. They were just Rory in the head. He’s always held a great fascination for people, but since he won that tournament we’ve had people from all over. It’s just become a lot bigger.”
McIlroy often pops into the club when he’s home, parking his car around the back of the clubhouse before heading down to the shop to see the professional Stephen Crooks and his boyhood friend Ricky McCormick, who is now an assistant professional at the club.
“We had a busload of American tourists here in the summer,” says catering manager Gabby Maguire. “They were just leaving when they saw Rory drive up and I have never seen so many old people running at the same time to get an autograph.” The tripling in green fee income from “McIlroy Mania” will not put much of a dent in the £250,000 clubhouse refurbishment scheduled for January. But it will allow the modest parkland course to showcase its greatest asset to those who are curious about Rory’s roots.
“We’ve had a lot of tourism interest this year,” explains club manager Paul Gray, who offered a £16 green fee this summer in honour of McIlroy’s 16-under-par winning aggregate in the US Open. “We would never have got that business before. People just want to see where Rory came from and how he came through the ranks. We are hoping to capitalise on the interest in Rory over the next few years because the market is there for us.”
Gray does not believe that fame and fortune has changed McIlroy as a person, though it has obviously changed his life. “It’s bound to change you a little bit in terms of lifestyle, but when he comes here he is still the same person. During the summer, he’d come up and park around the back and go down and see Stephen and Ricky in the shop and just casually chat away to the lads about how things were going. You couldn’t see Tiger doing that.”
Holywood was awash with American visitors in the aftermath of McIlroy’s sensational June triumph at Congressional. Nearly six months later, the hype may have died down considerably, but the locals still see him as a person who has remained true to his roots. “Everybody is so excited for Rory,” says Garry Jackson, a barber who cut the famous McIlroy mop when Rory was a lad. “Whenever you go on holiday now and people ask where you’re from, you tell them you’re from Holywood, home town of Rory McIlroy.”
McIlroy’s ‘do’ might be his trademark, but the man himself is now synonymous with the town that’s almost as famous worldwide as the Harland & Wolff cranes at the nearby shipyard where the Titanic was built. McIlroy hit his own iceberg at Augusta, but somehow regrouped to win at Congressional. His profile has never been higher, yet children have a way of bringing you down to earth. Asked what he expected from Rory at the 2012 Masters, young Feargal Eastwood mischievously declared: “He’s going to be leading after three rounds but then he won’t win!”
If anyone asks who killed Santa Claus, he’s in P-5 at St Patrick’s Primary.