McIlroy a product of his Northern Irish roots

By Associated PressJune 8, 2011, 5:23 pm

HOLYWOOD, Northern Ireland – “Catch yourself on!”

That's the melodious phrase people in Rory McIlroy's homeland of Northern Ireland direct at those they suspect have let their egos get the better of them. It means 'Get real!' or 'Come back to Earth!'

That phrase, and the peer pressure it describes of not getting too big for one's boots, offers a vital clue to how McIlroy has managed to juggle the expectations of possibly being golf's Next Big Thing without taking on the surliness of some. The prodigious talent has big ambitions, big hair – at times – but, so far, no big head.

From his uncle, friends, his swing coach and former school headmaster, the verdict is unanimous: Even as his fame and wealth rocket skyward faster than a tee-shot, McIlroy hasn't really changed. Nor will he, they say, in part because he's always been mature beyond his age but also because the 22-year-old makes a genuine effort to stay as grounded in Northern Ireland's earthy culture as the rhododendrons that sprinkle pink petals on the fairways where McIlroy's father introduced him to golf as a baby.

'The worst crime you can probably commit in Northern Ireland circles is to 'bum' or 'blow' about yourself, as we would say. To be pompous, airs and graces, have an overblown sense of your own importance, to take yourself too seriously ... and Rory is steeped in that culture,' explains John Stevenson, the recently retired principal of Sullivan Upper School in Holywood where McIlroy was a star pupil.

Which means that if his uncle, Colm, teases McIlroy with a cheeky text message after he's flopped at a tournament, the young star takes it with the humor with which it is intended, not with a 'Don't you know who I am?' sulk.

'He would text back, 'Well, I'm lying in a five-star hotel. What are you doing?'' Colm says, laughing. 'He's changed very little. There's obviously things you have to change, you know? There's a lot of those hangers-on now. But, you know, family-wise and friends-wise, you couldn't have it better.'

Northern Ireland is too small for McIlroy to develop delusions of grandeur. Spend any amount of time here and you are liable to bump into someone who says they recently spotted him in a cafe, a restaurant, a supermarket or whose friend of a friend knew someone who maybe once perhaps dated him. That intimacy, that familiarity, seems not only to suit McIlroy but helps him recharge his batteries after private-jetting around the world to play golf. Northern Ireland is where he still has the friends and people he not only grew up with but appears to go out of his way to keep in touch with.

'This is one of the safest places to live, Northern Ireland. And I can see now, going to America and these places, that you would have to live in gated communities. ... But over here it's different,' says Michael Bannon, McIlroy's coach from boyhood who still coaches him today.

'There's only, what, a million and half people living in Northern Ireland? It's a small place. People get to know your business, get to know you. Rory, if he was mega, could still walk down the street and go to Belfast. He's not going to change,' he says.

'He's a home-bird, you know? He just loves to be at home, spend a week at home, drive about in the car, meet people and just be himself,' the coach adds. 'That's very important so that you come back, you rewind, you get your R&R and then you head out again.'

Holywood, the quiet suburb of Belfast where McIlroy grew up in a red-brick house with an artificial putting green in the front yard, has two British Army barracks guarded by razor wire and cameras but is one of those pleasing and all too rare places where perfect strangers say 'Hello!' and give you a nod in the street. It escaped the worst of the bombings and shootings that scarred Northern Ireland for three decades but which largely have ended since the British territory's 1998 peace accord.

McIlroy grew up in the atmosphere of optimism that blossomed with that deal. Perhaps that is part of the reason he treads fairways with such bounce in his step. In that watershed year, McIlroy won a prominent under-10 tournament at Doral, beating 80 kids from two dozen countries. Afterward, all freckles and cheeky grin, the 9-year-old chipped a golf ball into the open mouth of a washing machine, just as he did at home, and performed other tricks on Irish television. He could already drive a ball 200 yards, McIlroy told his envious interviewer, and said he practiced all day, every day when he could. Asked if he wanted to become a professional golfer, McIlroy's response was unhesitating: 'Yes.'

His grandfather, Jimmy, worked all his life repairing cranes in the Belfast docks where the Titanic was built, picking up golf in his 30s at the Holywood Golf Club in the lush hills above his home, overlooking Belfast Lough. He transmitted the game to Rory's father, Gerry, and uncles, Colm and Brian. Rory's cousin, Fergus, 12, now wants to follow in his footsteps, too. The club bent its rules to let Rory in as a member at age 7, after a mandatory induction interview where 'he assured us that he wouldn't be a nuisance to anybody and that he knew the rules,' says Eddie Harper, who organized the juniors.

'We knew he was so good that it was stupid not to get him involved,' he says.

Even before Rory could walk, Gerry was bringing him to the club, adds Paul Gray, the general manager.

'Rory would be lying on his buggy just watching his dad hitting golf balls for the first 10 months of his life,' he says. 'As he got older, and could get out of the buggy, he was crawling around on the tee. ... Then, of course, Gerry had plastic clubs out there and that kept him occupied.'

Holywood's 5,000-yard short course suits juniors because 'they can reach the greens in two shots,' its hills force players to adapt to 'all sorts of different lies: ball above your feet, below your feet, uphill lies, downhill lies,' and its small greens mean 'they develop quite good short games, because they miss a lot of greens, obviously,' Gray says.

Rory 'was here pretty much every day,' he adds. By age 7 or 8, 'he was a proper little player.'

The brick and glass clubhouse is functional, not snobby, with somewhat threadbare carpets, a bar that serves a smooth pint of Guinness and a welcoming attitude to juniors, although Rory sometimes provoked frowns by hitting plastic balls inside, off the walls.

But there was never any hint that McIlroy was railroaded into golf by his parents. Instead, say those who know him, his ambitions were all his own. As a youngster, he called himself 'Rory 'Nick Faldo' McIlroy' and would saunter into the club's pro shop to practice his autograph on scorecards, writing 'The Open Championship' at the top, Gray says.

'Even at that age, he was painting really big pictures for himself,' he says. 'I have no doubt in my mind that he could see every shot when he was filling that scorecard in, visualizing himself being there someday.'

When he was naughty, Rory's parents sometimes took away his clubs. And, Bannon says, Rory was even known to have slept with a club in his hand, his fingers clasped in a grip the coach wanted him to learn.

But McIlroy's journey to the pinnacle of golf – he heads to the U.S. Open ranked No. 6 in the world – was also a team effort.

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, says Colm, the uncle who babysat the youngster in the hours when both parents were away.

'They put all their efforts into him,' Bannon says. 'They sacrificed everything for Rory. Any money went into Rory traveling places.'

Stevenson, the school principal, also let him skip classes and exams so he could travel for golf, and hid the lad's absences from education authorities. Stevenson says he didn't want to later be known as the man who blocked the path of Northern Ireland's biggest sports talent since George Best, the Manchester United football player with fleet feet and a destructive weakness for booze who died in 2005 at 59.

In his final year of school, McIlroy 'was probably away from school more than he was at school and I was covering for him,' Stevenson says. They agreed he would do five leaving exams but, 'in the end, he sat one,' getting top marks in physical education.

Stevenson said he initially worried that the parents, not Rory, might be pushing him toward a career in golf but soon realized it wasn't the case.

'Gerry looked me in the eye and said, 'Mr. Stevenson, I know what you're thinking.' He said, 'It's not me. It's him,'' Stevenson recalls.

Rory 'in his own wee shy way' also said, ''I'm going to be a golfer, sir,' and this was not parroting what dad wanted or what mum was telling him to do,' Stevenson adds.

'In his genes, in his psyche, in his heart, this is where it lay,' he says.

One thing McIlroy seems never to have lacked is self-confidence.

Gray remembers McIlroy in his midteens surrounded by huge crowds forming a tunnel 40 yards long on a fairway at a tournament.

'He just stood up as nonchalantly as you like, you know? Pulled an iron out, made this swing, whipped the ball onto the green and I'm just thinking, 'That's just different class, to be able to focus on your shot with people standing nearly on top of you,'' Gray says. 'Never once did he turn around to them and go, 'Could you stand back please' like other players would or 'Give me more room.' He just accepted it.'

The first time Rory out-drove his father and Colm, he walked up to his ball and then turned toward them 10 yards back and shouted, 'Everybody all right there?' the uncle recalls.

'You could never say to Rory, 'No, you can't play that shot.' If you said, 'You can't play that, Rory,' the next day he'd be out practicing it. Fearless, basically,' he says.

This being Northern Ireland, where strong political and religious beliefs have provided excuses for spilling rivers of blood, and Rory being 'our local lad,' everyone has a solid opinion about what those who don't understand the mental anguish of golf cruelly call 'the choke.' That, of course, was when McIlroy played like Woods of old for three days at the Masters before blowing the lead on the final round.

Back at home, that epic collapse is now cause for the Northern Irish version of a Gallic shrug. Too young, too eager, too inexperienced, too early in his career, runs local wisdom. Again, those who know him say McIlroy seems to have quickly moved on. And there's real local pride in the way he graciously accepted his disappointment. In doing so, McIlroy flew the flag for cherished Northern Irish virtues of being honest, polite and grounded. He was 'Catch yourself on!' personified. People, not just from Northern Ireland, wrote supportive letters to the Holywood Golf Club.

'A pile of mail,' Gray says. 'He came and picked them up and went home and read them all.'

'Northern Ireland people need their heroes, and certainly needed them in the dark days of the Troubles. ... Somebody who speaks like us, who comes from our place whose only real claim to fame is that we murder each other at regular intervals,' Stevenson says. 'Rory has now occupied, probably, that No. 1 slot in the hearts and minds of Northern Ireland people, right across all the communities. ... Rory has cut through all of that.'

Colm says The Masters experience 'will make him stronger, definitely.'

'He has so much belief in his own ability,' he says. 'The way he looks at it, you know, is he had those three days and you can't not be a world-class player if you lead the Masters after three days.'

Bannon adds: 'His game's too good to be scarred by this type of thing, you know? He'll come back stronger, and he'll do it, he will. Tom Watson blew up in a lot of Opens; I mean you'll never hear that now, and he won five of them. There's a lots of guys that blew up in last rounds until they learned how to handle it.'

A quick learner – that's something else they say about McIlroy. In the spacious grounds of his comfortable home outside Belfast, he's built greens and practice areas seeded with different types of grasses he encounters at tournaments and bunkers, including a replica of the famous Road Hole at the 17th at St. Andrews, with various grades of sand.

'It is very forward-thinking,' Bannon says. 'He can walk out the kitchen and hit golf balls.'

'That's one thing about Rory, too — he's always up very early. He doesn't really lie in,' he adds. 'Sometimes I go over to his house there at 8 o'clock in the morning and he'll be there. He's up and organized. He may have been to the gym at half-six or something.'

So the golf-mad boy is now the consummate professional. But, really, it's still his boyish nature that makes McIlroy such a pleasure to watch.

'If someone said, 'What's your abiding memory of Rory?' I think it's the joy on his face or the look on his face when he was young, maybe looking forward to going out to play golf or wanting to show people what he could do,' Bannon says.

'This wee fella with the talent, going to beat everybody and to just show them exactly what he was made of.”

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'It's been fun': Tiger embracing this year's moral victory

By Rex HoggardSeptember 19, 2018, 3:52 pm

ATLANTA – The aura of Tiger Woods has always demanded that his accomplishments, or failures, be graded on a unique scale. When your only competition is a record book and a guy named Jack, normal benchmarks just won’t cut it.

When you’ve won 14 major championships and 79 PGA Tour titles, there’s no such thing as a moral victory.

Well, there didn’t used to be. But this is different.

It was a year ago next week that Woods first offered an unfiltered glimpse into the state of his body and his game following fusion surgery on his lower back in April 2017.

“The pain's gone, but I don't know what my golfing body is going to be like, because I haven't hit a golf shot yet,” he said at last September’s Presidents Cup. “So that's going to take time to figure that out and figure out what my capabilities are going forward, and there's no rush.”

As timelines go, it’s telling that it was shortly after those matches in New Jersey that Woods reached out to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan to ask about the possibility of being the captain of the U.S. Presidents Cup team in 2019. With Tiger, it’s always about reading between the lines, but it’s a relatively straightforward message that less than a year ago he was contemplating life as a captain, not necessarily a player.

Tiger has spoken often this year about the uncertainty he felt entering this season, about the unknowns that awaited him during this most recent comeback. He’s even suggested that for the first time in his career, he began a season with dramatically tempered expectations.

Yhat outlook began to change, albeit slowly at first, following a pedestrian West Coast swing that included a missed cut at the Genesis Open.

“The beginning of the year was such an unknown, I didn't know if I would be able to make it to Florida and to play the Florida Swing. Let's just start out at Torrey and see how it goes,” Woods explained on Wednesday at the Tour Championship.

He not only remained upright throughout the spring, but he also showed flashes of his former self with a runner-up showing at the Valspar Championship.

Unlike Justin Thomas, who studiously thumbs a lengthy list of goals into his cell phone each season, Woods keeps his vision board largely to himself. Nonetheless, there have been milestones throughout the season that have checked the right boxes.

For starters, Tiger will finish this season with 19 starts, the most he’s played since 2012. In fact, just once since 2000 has he played more than 19, which is as good a sign as any that his health, if not his game, is up to the task.


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His performance on the course has also steadily progressed. Although he’s not won since 2013, and that will always be the standard by which he’s judged, his world ranking tracks quite steeply in one direction. When he finished 15th at the Hero World Challenge, an unofficial, limited-field event in December, he was 650th in the world. Before the season’s first major, he cracked the top 100. Last month, his runner-up showing at the PGA Championship moved him back into the top 30.

That progression paved the way for a return to the World Golf Championship at Firestone and this week’s Tour Championship.

“Just to have that opportunity to be able to add a tournament, I thought I was going to be taking tournaments away, but to have added a couple and to have earned my way into Akron, I look at this year more as I've exceeded a lot of my expectations and goals because so much of it was an unknown,” he said.

This week’s start at East Lake is particularly rewarding considering it’s been five year’s since he played the finale. To Tiger, the Tour Championship is a straightforward meritocracy.

“What I've missed most about playing this event is that in order to get into this event, I would have earned my way being part of the top 30 most consistent players of the year and the best players of the year,” he said. “No exemptions into this event. Either you get here or you don't. It's a very hard line.”

There’s still plenty of work to do. On Wednesday, he talked of getting all of the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place at the same time, something that’s been an issue even during his best weeks.

The scale is always going to be wildly tilted when it comes to Tiger and for many that’s not going to change. It’s the price he must pay for unparalleled success. But for Woods and those around him, it’s impossible and frankly unfair to grade this season based entirely on wins and loses.

In sports, you are what your record says you are. Maybe when Woods calls it a career, 2018 will be nothing more than a bridge to bigger and better things. But as Tiger took mental inventory of his 22nd full season on Tour on Wednesday, the smile that spread across his face went well beyond the standings and statistics – “It’s been fun,” he beamed.

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Stanford suddenly a potential Solheim captain

By Randall MellSeptember 19, 2018, 3:06 pm

Angela Stanford’s first major championship brought more than a large trophy, a large paycheck and an extra-large jolt of confidence going forward.

It bolstered her hopes for a larger Solheim Cup future.

Stanford, 40, wondered if her Solheim Cup days were over when she failed to make the American team going to Iowa last year, but Sunday’s victory at the Evian Championship vaults her into the picture to make the team going to Scotland next year.

More than that, it bolsters her burning ambition to one day lead the U.S. Solheim Cup team as its captain.

“When you’ve played in some Solheim Cups and you miss one, it hurts,” Stanford told GolfChannel.com. “They’re very special.

“Hopefully, next year, I’m playing well enough to help the team win. I would like to play in another one, and, yes, I would like to be a captain someday.”

It was fitting Evian officials wrapped Stanford in the American flag during the trophy presentation Sunday in France. She loves team golf and playing for her country, but before winning there she wondered about more than her prospects for making another U.S. team.

She wondered about her qualifications to be captain.

“I always heard winning a major was one of the requirements,” said Stanford, a six-time LPGA winner “I don’t know if that’s true or not.”

While it’s not a requirement, LPGA officials acknowledge it’s a consideration.

There have been 11 different American captains in Solheim Cup history, and Rosie Jones is the only one who didn’t have a major on her resume, though she did have 13 LPGA titles.



So Stanford’s victory Sunday in France opens a door. She needed it because her Solheim Cup record isn’t the most stellar. She’s 4-13-3 in the matches, but the record almost doesn’t matter now with her major. Plus, Stanford created a Solheim Cup memory that trumps her playing record. She prevailed in one of the most monumental singles matches in Solheim Cup history. She took down Suzann Pettersen in the historic American comeback in Germany three years ago. That’s the year Pettersen, the undisputed European leader, was embroiled in controversy over American Alison Lee’s mistake scooping up a putt that wasn’t conceded. Pettersen was the heart and soul of the European team that appeared to be rolling toward a third consecutive team title that year.

Stanford beat Pettersen 2-and-1 during the epic American comeback.

“That really changed how I felt about how I performed on the Solheim stage,” Stanford said. “I was really hoping to make last year’s team, to ride that momentum. Hopefully, I will get another chance.”

Stanford has the memory of her role in that comeback to draw upon forever. She arrived on the first tee to play Pettersen with the same attitude she took to Evian on Sunday. Her record didn’t matter; she was going to fight to the end.

“I came out that morning in Germany with the attitude that, 'I’m sick of losing. I’m sick of being pushed around. I’m sick of coming up on the short end,'” Stanford said. “I showed up with the attitude, 'This isn’t going to happen to me again. I’m not going to be the reason we don’t pull this off.’

“I didn’t like what happened to Alison, and I really wanted to help the team.”

Juli Inkster will captain the American team for an unprecedented third time in Scotland next year. When Inkster’s reign ends, Stanford’s name will move up the short list of future candidates.

It’s a list that should include Dottie Pepper, Pat Hurst and Sherri Steinhauer, though Pepper’s history with today’s players and her heavy criticism of the Americans in the past makes her future selection highly doubtful, if she even wanted the job.

After that, the most relevant choices are Cristie Kerr and now Stanford. Like Stanford, Kerr is 40 and still very much focused on playing.

“I probably have one of the rougher Solheim Cup records in history, but personally I never looked at it like that,” Stanford said. “I look at our team record. I’ve been on three winning teams and three losing teams. I want to make it on another team and make that a winning record.”

Stanford’s confidence after winning Evian and her desire to win another Solheim Cup should make for potent fuel to drive her over the next year.

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Tiger: Back was an issue in 2012 Ryder loss at Medinah

By Rex HoggardSeptember 19, 2018, 2:39 pm

ATLANTA – On Tuesday at East Lake, Tiger Woods played a nine-hole practice round with Bryson DeChambeau, adding to the notion that the two could end up partnering at next week’s Ryder Cup.

Of course, he also played with Tony Finau. And - let’s face it - there are no shortage of potential teammates for Woods in the U.S. team room.

But DeChambeau does seem to have his interest.

“I've gotten to know Bryson very well, and what an amazing talent, and an unbelievable hard worker,” Woods said. “He has figured out a way to play this game his own way, and he's very efficient at what he does, and he's not afraid to think outside the box on how he can become better.”

After missing the last two matches because of injury, finding the right partner is a good problem to have.


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Being one of Jim Furyk’s four captain’s picks is particularly rewarding for Woods, who endured one of his toughest losses in the matches in his last start in 2012, when the U.S. team took a four-point lead into Sunday singles but lost, 14 1/2 to 13 1/2.

The ’12 matches were where Woods' back prompted him to request a late tee time Sunday, rendering his anchor match with Francesco Molinari ultimately irrelevant once Europe retained at least a share of the cup. Woods eventually conceded the 18th hole to Molinari, ending their match in a halve and allowing Europe to win outright. 

“I wasn't feeling physically well at that Ryder Cup, and it's where my back started bugging me,” Woods said. “That's the only wave I've ever missed was [that] Saturday afternoon wave, because I told [U.S. captain Davis Love III] I just really couldn't go. And I said, 'Can you put me out later on Sunday? Because I need the time to get my back organized here.'

“It was tough watching them celebrate in the 18th fairway when I thought we should have won that one."

Woods actually missed the morning foursomes session on Day 2 in at Medinah. It marked the first time in his Ryder Cup career he didn’t play all four team sessions. He finished with a 0-3-1 record for the week.

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Stenson fires back at Mickelson on gun range

By Will GraySeptember 19, 2018, 1:24 pm

The first shots of the Ryder Cup may be ringing off a target at a gun range near you.

After Phil Mickelson tweeted his long-range sniper shot, extolling the virtues of focus and measured breathing as he prepares to take on Le Golf National next week, one of Europe's top players picked up a weapon to return fire.

Henrik Stenson was added as a captain's pick earlier this month, and he'll make his fifth Ryder Cup appearance in France. But before heading across the Atlantic he had some fun on Twitter, grabbing a gun and tweeting a video back to Mickelson while taking aim at a target 50 yards away:

Ever the Twitter savant, Mickelson saw the message and came back with a reply of his own, noting that he couldn't hear Stenson's shot hit the target like Mickelson's did from much longer range in the original video:

This is your reminder that the first (golf) shots of the Ryder Cup will be struck in just nine days.