Commentary

Holywood's adoration shines on Rory

Originally Published: July 11, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

HOLYWOOD, Northern Ireland -- The man behind the counter of the tattoo store has pierced ears with lobe holes the size of bottle caps. His arms and hands are tattooed Sistine Chapels. Silver studs poke through his eyebrow and upper ear. And he has sort of a "Something About Mary" thing going on with his spiked hair.

So why, then, is he looking at me like I'm crazy?

All I asked was if anyone has been inked up with a tat of Holywood's very own Rory McIlroy. You know the guy: threw up on himself at the Masters, lapped the field at the U.S. Open, now the betting favorite to win the Open Championship at Royal St. George's.

Rory McIlroy
Gene Wojciechowski/ESPN.comHolywood, Northern Ireland -- Rory McIlroy's hometown -- holds a special place in his heart. And by the looks of it, the feeling is quite mutual.

Instead, I get a long pause and, "Not that I'm aware of."

"Nobody, huh?" I say, raising my voice over the bumble bee buzz of a tattoo machine.

A shake of the head.

"OK, so how much would it cost me to get one?"

"Depends on the size."

Turns out they can do smaller portrait tats, no problem. And what with me not needing parental consent, they can also throw in a tongue, nipple or genital piercing too. Tempting.

Anyway, it's 70 pounds an hour for an artist. Figure at least one, maybe two hours for the Rors tramp stamp. With the VAT and crummy exchange rate, I'm looking at nearly $300. But I am in McIlroy's hometown and it would be something of a tattoo first, right? Then again, this could just be the Guinness talking.

The tattoo man waits for an answer. I nudge a small glass jar on the counter with my pen and notice the taped sign. Help Me Raise Funds To Buy A Bigger Tip Jar. I look to my right and see a man draped over a chair as a tattoo artist works on his upper back. It hurts just watching.

"You know," I say, "I'm gonna think about it."

And then I slink out in a full wussie retreat. I'm all for the McIlroy Mania that's sweeping the golf world, but there are limits. Or maybe there aren't.

After all, you can't swing a 7-iron in this one-stoplight town without hitting a poster, banner, newspaper front page, photo, chalkboard, homemade sign, floral arrangement or, yes, even a cookie, that commemorates and celebrates McIlroy's return home after winning the U.S. Open. McIlroy's beaming face is on almost every storefront window on High Street, the town's main drag.

[+] EnlargeRory McIlroy thank you note
Gene Wojciechowski/ESPN.comRory McIlroy left a handwritten note at Holywood Golf Club, where he learned the game, thanking the members for all their help over the years. He was allowed to join the club at just 8 years old.

"Oh, he's put Holywood on the map," says Lorna Alexander, a McIlroy family friend whose haircutting shop features an autographed photo of Rory. "It's become a very special wee town."

McIlroy could live anywhere. He has the money: $5.2 million earned on the PGA Tour, another 8 million-plus pounds earned on the European Tour, endorsement money out the wazoo. In fact, Oakley just unveiled its very own Rory golf clothing collection, complete with a pre-announced Open Championship ensemble for his Thursday-Sunday play -- just like his boyhood golf hero Tiger Woods used to do with Nike.

But when he was done with the post-U.S. Open news conferences, the photo shoots, the video shoots, the endorsement obligations in London and the Royal Box appearance at Wimbledon to watch buddy Rafael Nadal, McIlroy returned to the place he knows best and trusts most: Holywood.

"Holywood's soul is in its people, I think," McIlroy said during his London stopover. "Going back, everyone knows everyone. No one treats me differently just because of who I am or what I've achieved. And that's really important to me. If I go to a coffee shop, I'm just Rory. Regular guy, just like everyone else."

Regular guy? Yes. Just like everyone else? Uh, sort of.

Everyone else in town doesn't have his or her very own cookie collection at Valerie Skinner's bakery. McIlroy does. On top of the three-layer biscuit is a coat of icing that features McIlroy holding the U.S. Open trophy. The USGA probably isn't thrilled, but Skinner is.

[+] EnlargeRory McIlroy
Gene Wojciechowski/ESPN.comEven cookies with Rory McIlroy's face emblazoned on them were available in his hometown.

"I've sold thousands," says Skinner, who won't let me pay for the half-dozen McIlroys I ordered. "And we're still selling. ... Yep. Everyone's talking about Holywood and talking about Rory."

Talking about Rory is the newest cottage industry in Holywood, population of about 12,000. Since the victory at Congressional, these people have been McIlroy'd to death by visiting reporters, TV crews and even tourists. At Holywood Golf Club, where McIlroy learned to play, a teenager sighs wearily as I approach with a notebook.

"I've already done five of these interviews," he says.

Two visiting Canadians played the course the day before. Another five out-of-towners were on the starter's sheet for the next day.

"We weren't on the tourist trail before [McIlroy's win]," says HGC general manager Paul Gray, who was the head pro during McIlroy's formative golf years. "There wasn't any reason to be here. Rory gave them a reason to be here."

Hey, it's not our fault that McIlroy is a story with Yao Ming-length legs. All he did was leave high school before he graduated, turn pro not long after, make a beeline up the world rankings, blow his first major when he was 21 and then win his first major about a month after turning 22.

He has a swing to die for, a pair of loving, blue-collar parents and apparently not a known enemy. The guy is so nice that he's been known to help his girlfriend babysit. Not long ago he quietly donated a huge load of clothes to a local African charity. And let's not forget his recent UNICEF trip to one of the most god-forsaken places on the planet, Haiti.

"He hasn't changed at all," says Alexander. "If anything, I think he's even more down to earth."

"There's no other way of saying it," says Chris Peel, the headmaster at Sullivan Upper School, where McIlroy spent five years as a student. "He's a lovely person."

Rory McIlroy
Gene Wojciechowski/ESPN.comThe pride of Sullivan Upper School, Rory McIlroy returned to share his experiences with today's students. The "surprise" visit was probably the worst-kept secret in Northern Ireland.

Drive east out of town and you're waving to farm cows in less than five minutes. Drive west and you're on the beach within seconds. Holywood sits against the waters of the Irish Sea. Only a few miles away is the famed Harland & Wolff shipyard of Belfast, where the Titanic was launched a century ago.

And within and around Belfast itself are reminders of "The Troubles," the still lingering political and religious uneasiness in Northern Ireland between those loyal to the English crown (Protestants) and those who favor an alliance with the Republic of Ireland (Catholics). The building murals marking the territory of each aren't difficult to find.

Golf, though, is apolitical. At least, that's the way McIlroy was taught by his father, Gerry, and his mother, Rosie.

Gerry, a scratch golfer in his day, used to park Rory's stroller at the edge of the Holywood Golf Club practice area and hit balls while his infant son slept or watched. When Rory was a few years older, Gerry gave him a set of plastic clubs. Club members soon were complaining about the little kid hitting plastic golf balls in the upstairs restaurant.

The plastic clubs were replaced by a cut-down 5-wood. Irons were added. People began noticing McIlroy's little swing.

"I suppose when he was about 5 or 6 you sort of knew there was something special there," says Michael Bannon, McIlroy's longtime swing coach and the former head professional at HGC. "And he was so good when he was 7½ years of age that one of the men in the golf club came out and asked me what do you think of Rory? Can he join the golf club? ... So Holywood Golf Club let him become a member at 8 years of age."

By then he could fade or draw a shot. He could adjust his ball flight from high to low or low to high. And because of HGC's smallish greens, he developed a killer short game.

Rory McIlroy
Jennifer Chafitz/ESPNImages of the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland are always present, including on building-sized murals that paint a violent picture.

McIlroy appeared on a Northern Ireland TV show when he was 9 and hit balls into the opening of a front-loading washing machine -- just like he did with his mom's washer. He began winning local tournaments. He pleaded with Gerry to take him to the driving range, even if Gerry had just returned home from one of the three jobs he worked.

This wasn't a case of the father pushing the son toward golf. The son didn't need pushing. He loved it. If he misbehaved, Gerry didn't ground Rory; he grounded his golf clubs.

"That would have hurt a lot," says Mickey McDonald, McIlroy's uncle.

His bedroom wall featured a poster of Woods, as well as a copy of Woods' scorecard from the 1997 Masters. That's when Tiger vaporized the field by 12 shots, finished at 18 under and, at 21, became the youngest player to win at Augusta National.

McIlroy dreamed of green jackets, silver trophies and claret jugs. He dreamed so hard that he used to call himself Rory Nick Faldo McIlroy. He worked on his autograph. He would walk into the HGC pro shop, take a scorecard and start filling in the blanks.

Under Competition, he'd write, Open Championship.

"And then he'd fill out his score," says Gray, the former assistant pro who replaced Bannon in 1999. "And it was always like 6 under, 9 under. It was always something ridiculous and then he'd sign it at the bottom: Rory McIlroy. And then in the marker's box he would sign, Nick Faldo and some other great player.

"At the time I didn't think anything of it. But he was really stirring the dreams in his own mind."

Gray and Bannon thought it was make-believe. But to McIlroy it was practice.

"The thing about Rory is when he was growing up and you asked him questions, he'd give you these very definite straight answers and it was stuff ... you couldn't laugh," says Bannon, who attended Gerry and Rosie's wedding and lived across the street from the McIlroys for three years. "Well, I never did because I always knew someday this guy could do it."

Bannon, now the head pro at nearby Bangor Golf Club, slips a DVD into his desktop computer. It is a video of McIlroy when he was 8, chipping and swinging during a practice session at HGC. Then he clicks on footage of McIlroy from a practice session in Florida earlier this spring. The swings aren't identical, but they're still similar.

"He was in this very room when he was 14 [or] 15," says Bannon, sitting in his cramped office next to the Bangor pro shop. "And he had a lesson. He comes in with his dad and he was getting ready to go off and I said, 'Rory, what's the plan for this year?' And he said, 'I'm going to win the West of Ireland Championship. I'm going to win the Irish squad training in Spain. And I'm going to win the Spanish Amateur.'

"Now he just looked me straight in the face and serious -- that's what he was going to do. Straight face. And he won two out of three."

So I ask Bannon if McIlroy, even back then, ever talked about winning majors.

"He'd be telling us and we'd be saying, 'Yeah, you're going to win some. You're going to win a big one,"' says Bannon. "You know, and he has done it. But it's not the end of it. It's just the start, I think."

Without much work, you can make the case that McIlroy ought to have two majors by now, not one. He had a four-stroke lead entering the final round of April's Masters, but then shot 80 and finished 10 behind winner Charl Schwartzel.

[+] EnlargeRory McIlroy and Mickey McDonald
Courtesy Mickey McDonaldMickey McDonald, Rory McIlroy's uncle, posed with his nephew's latest prize -- the U.S. Open trophy.

Almost all of Holywood watched the collapse. When McIlroy hooked his tee shot into the tributary bordering the 13th fairway, "my heart was just breaking for him," says Gray. "He had a look of, 'Just get me off the golf course.'"

"He just didn't know what to do in that final round," says Bannon. "He wasn't sure in that stage, 'How do I finish this? How do I go over the line?'"

Gray texted McIlroy the day after the Masters meltdown. You're not feeling great right now, buddy, but you will look back at this someday and realize it made you better. You were sensational for 3½ days. This is just another step on the ladder. I know you will keep your head high and learn everything you can from it."

Less than three months later, McIlroy learned how to win the U.S. Open. During the course of his eight-stroke beatdown of the field, McIlroy broke or tied a dozen U.S. Open records. And Holywood stayed up well past midnight to see McIlroy sink his final putt, pump his fist and then find Gerry for a greenside father-son bear hug.

"I would say 99 percent of the town stayed up to watch it," says Stephen Moore, who 30 years ago worked with McIlroy's grandmother in the same butcher shop he now co-owns. "Sunday night was fantastic. The whole town is still buzzing."

Gerry was at Congressional for the entire tournament, but Rosie, who used to work in a factory to help make ends meet when Rory was growing up, stayed in Northern Ireland. As McIlroy reached the 16th hole during that final round, Rosie received a phone call from her brother Mickey.

"Well, you must be proud," said Mickey. "It's all over."

"It's not over until the fat lady sings," she said.

And then she burst into tears. Her son -- Holywood's favorite son -- was going to win the U.S. Open.

The day after the tournament there was line outside the Holywood Paddy Power betting parlor when manager Shaun McCord opened the door. The locals had bet on McIlroy.

"Never seen an atmosphere like that in the shop," says McCord. "But more than happy to take a bath on that one. It's unusual to say we were happy to give away money. But he's a nice guy. I can't stress that enough."

McIlroy made a quickie return to Holywood Golf Club for a celebration with the members. And later there was a party at McIlroy's house with family and friends. Everyone got a photo op with the U.S. Open trophy, which for a second year in a row is studying abroad in Northern Ireland (countryman Graeme McDowell won it last year) -- not bad for a country that could fit into California's suit pocket. And if they wanted, they could take a swig of champagne out of it. McIlroy did.

But here's the truth: McIlroy didn't have his "My God, I've Won The U.S. Open" moment until nearly a week after leaving Congressional.

"I was actually at a concert in Belfast waiting for another act to come on and it just sort of hit me," he says. "You can't describe the feeling. It's just like, wow."

Holywood felt the same way. Still does.

If you ask McIlroy where to go in Holywood, he'll tell you to visit the golf club, or Sea Park if the weather is nice. He'll mention the town's main watering hole, Ned's.

"They say it's the best pint of Guinness in town," he says.

"But you've never been there personally, right?" I say.

"No, no, never," he says, smiling.

McIlroy isn't against a pint now and then. He isn't against living his age either, which is a good thing. McIlroy is mature, but not in a programmed, corporate sort of way. When I saw him in London, he has a lame-o 1 o'clock shadow of a beard. You can actually count the whiskers on his face.

About 10 days ago, McIlroy visited the Sullivan School, where there are photos of him on the wall just inside the main lobby. With the blessings of his parents and the former headmaster at Sullivan, the now-retired John Stevenson, McIlroy left there when he was 16 and turned pro in 2007.

He wasn't a crummy student, just a disinterested one. His grades were fine, but golf was his future. Years later, Stevenson would tell friends, "Whew, we made the right call there."

Now he was back for a supposed surprise visit to students on the final day of school. Except that it wasn't a surprise to anyone. The visit had already made the Facebook rounds.

When McIlroy walked onto the auditorium stage, you could have heard the standing ovation in Belfast. One Sullivan student, in her Harry Potter-like school uni, turned to a classmate and gushed, "I love him. He loves me."

He spoke about the inspirations in his life and the importance of hard work. He signed autographs. He posed for pictures in the rose garden. He did what he usually does: make friends and admirers.

"Every few years you need a new hero," says Peel. "And heroes sometimes become fallen heroes. ... That's never going to happen to Rory. I would bet my house on that -- because of his upbringing."

Says Gray: "People from Northern Ireland respect humble people ... they appreciate humble people. I get the feeling the American public likes that, too."

Right now, about the worst you can say about McIlroy is that he suffers from hat hair. Otherwise, he's shooting under par on annoying personality flaws. Golf loves him. Holywood loves him. The bettors love him.

The day I was at Paddy Power, McIlroy was an 11/2 favorite to win the Open Championship. Lee Westwood was 10/1 and Luke Donald was 14/1. A couple of months ago, McCord says you could get 500/1 odds that McIlroy would break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 career majors victories. Now the odds have freefallen to 12/1.

"I measure myself against myself," says McIlroy. "I want to sit here next year at this point and say I'm a better player now than I was last year."

If he wins this week at Royal St. George's, he won't have to wait until next year. Holywood will throw another party. McCord will happily watch more money go out the door.

And someone somewhere will take the Rory tattoo plunge. Please send a photo. The wussie wants to see what he missed.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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