HOLYWOOD, Northern Ireland – At the club in Northern Ireland where Rory McIlroy learned his golf as a kid, they went wild from the very first birdie.
Many pints were sunk and songs sung, including an impromptu “Rory, Rory Hallelujah.” Members of the Holywood Golf Club were glued to the television, almost literally: one man kissed the large screen in the clubhouse’s main bar after McIlroy won the U.S. Open by eight shots, his first of what many in Northern Ireland believe will be many major titles for the 22-year-old.
“We’re massively proud,” said club member Tommy Trimble. “It was incredible.”
The club overlooking Belfast Lough bent its rules to let McIlroy in as a member at age 7, because he showed such golfing promise and early prowess. His father, Gerry, also a golfer, started taking McIlroy to the club even before he could walk, putting him in a buggy while he practiced. Gerry got McIlroy plastic clubs when he was a toddler. Photos of McIlroy as a smiling youngster clutching trophies and assorted memorabilia he has autographed hang on the clubhouse walls.
When they gathered there for the last major two months ago, members went home disappointed after McIlroy melted down at the Masters, blowing a four-shot lead on the last day. On Sunday night, they erased those bad memories with cheers, drinks and unrestrained joy. McIlroy’s 12-year-old cousin, Fergus, was among those watching. Youngsters packed into the front row jumped to their feet when McIlroy won.
“He is just unbelievable, I just think this is a stepping stone to what is going to materialize over the next 10 years,” said the club’s pro, Stephen Crooks. “He will be world No. 1, he will win seven major trophies and he will dominate golf.”
“This is huge,” said John Stevenson, the recently retired principal of Sullivan Upper School in Holywood where McIlroy was a star pupil. “Rory is the hero.”
The modest brick and glass clubhouse was packed with people, some of them who remember McIlroy as a kid hitting plastic balls inside, off the walls, and later spending as many hours as he could practicing on the hilly course. There were resounding cheers and clenched fists thrust ecstatically into the air when McIlroy dug his approach shot on No. 1 out of a divot to 6 feet for a birdie on Sunday. McIlroy shot 2-under 69 to close the four days at Congressional at 16-under 268, shattering a U.S. Open scoring record.
In Northern Ireland, there was also huge pride that the British territory with just 1.8 million people and a bloody history of conflict has now produced two U.S. Open champions in succession, after Graeme McDowell won last year. McIlory is also admired here for having stayed grounded even as his golfing career, fame and wealth have hit heights.
“Rory is a fantastic fella, so down to earth yet such a professional,” said one of his friends, Owen Gunning. “He mixes with the young lads and would always say ‘hello’ and always has time for you.”
Stevenson, who watched Sunday’s play on TV at his home, described McIlroy as “a uniting force” for Northern Ireland.
“He crosses all boundaries,” he said. “Everyone in the country is completely behind him.
“He was groomed for stardom. He’s always had the talent. The question mark has always been, particularly in golf, can you handle the pressure? Well, today he proved to himself and to everybody, yup, he can handle the pressure.”
“He’s been imagining himself walking up the 18th fairway of a major championship for a long time, and today’s it’s happened,” he added.
Songs were sung at the club in honor of McIlroy’s father, too. To pay for the ambitions of their only child, McIlroy’s mother worked factory night shifts while his father tended bar and cleaned locker rooms at a Belfast rugby and cricket club and then served in another bar at nights.
“I’m pleased for his family,” Stevenson said. Winning on Sunday “was a like a present to his dad and I’m sure that was in his mind, because his mum and his dad, he owes them so much, and he knows that. Rory would be the first to give them credit, there’s no doubt about it, and that’s one of the great things about him.”