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 Tiger Woods at his worst. The prodigious talent has big ambitions, big hair but, so far, no big head.
When he finally wins his first major — perhaps at next week's U.S. Open — and his earnings go from merely huge to ridiculously stratospheric, the expectations behind that phrase also explain why those who know McIlroy think they'll still be bumping into him at normal places like the Dirty Duck Ale House in his hometown of Holywood, perhaps sinking a pint and a plate of sticky toffee pudding while gazing at the choppy waters of Belfast Lough where the Titanic launched a century ago.
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."