Rory McIlroy's trip makes deep impact
BETHESDA, Md. -- He still doesn't know her name. She was 4 or 5 years old, had a smile as bright as halogen headlights and didn't quite know what to make of the curly haired Northern Irishman who visited her tiny school in still earthquake-devastated Haiti.
But Rory McIlroy will never forget her. He won't forget anything about last week's trip to the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, where the 22-year-old spent two days with his jaw dropped and his senses overwhelmed.
"It was great to see the work that UNICEF does, but it was sad to see the state of Haiti," McIlroy said. "No street lights. The roads are basically gone. People living in tents at the sides of the streets. Living in conditions I've never seen in my life."
Haiti is not a place for the weak. And often, not even a place for the strong. Few countries have endured more, suffered more, wept more.
It is the victim of political upheaval, chaos, gangs and relentless, unforgiving diseases. It is on one of the longest losing streaks of any country on the planet. And that was before a January 2010 earthquake shook Haiti as if it were a bottle of salad dressing.
Now, according to UNICEF statistics, Haiti has the highest rates of infant, under-5 and maternal mortality in the Western Hemisphere. Malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, respiratory infections and diarrhea are the most prominent villains.
About 60 percent of the population has no access to basic health care services. Schools and hospitals have closed. The country's infrastructure remains partly in ruins.
That's why McIlroy, the No. 8-ranked player in the world, happily squeezed the trip to Haiti into his swollen travel schedule. As a UNICEF Ireland Ambassador, he had to see it for himself. He is 22 going on remarkable.
"It's all well and good to sort of put your name to something," said McIlroy, as he stood just off the practice green at Congressional Country Club early Tuesday afternoon. "But [UNICEF was] very keen for me to go and see what they do in different countries. I was up for that as well. I was like, 'Yeah, sure, that would be a great thing to do.'"
Said Melanie Verwoerd, executive director of UNICEF Ireland, in an email response: "His willingness to take on this role and spend some time in Haiti confirmed our conviction that he is, even at this young age, a man of conviction and courage."
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During the week between the Memorial and the U.S. Open, McIlroy flew with a UNICEF contingent to Haiti, a place where about 55 percent of the population lives below the United States poverty line of $1.25 per day.
Before they landed, UNICEF reps briefed McIlroy on the situation for children in post-earthquake Haiti. "But as we were aware prior to the trip and, as Rory admitted afterward, nothing could truly prepare anyone for meeting the children and the daily challenges they face in Haiti," Verwoerd said.
McIlroy visited a maternal center as well as camps for the earthquake displaced. He distributed cholera prevention kits. He taught children how to wash their hands. It doesn't sound like much until someone tells you that clean hands help prevent cholera, a disease responsible for more than 5,000 deaths in the country.
Nobody really knew who he was. "Not really," McIlroy said. "I could have been anyone. I could have been anyone."
The school visit was his favorite. It's where he looked down and saw that little girl staring up at him.
"What a smile," said McIlroy, who now uses the photo of him holding the little girl as the mug shot on his Twitter account (@McIlroyRory). "But that sort of symbolized the whole trip for me, that picture. Kids, they almost seem oblivious to what's going on around them. They're so resilient. They're just so happy to be going to school and sort of doing stuff that's just normal, everyday life."
McIlroy had picked up the girl to show her an inflatable globe hanging from the classroom ceiling. He showed her where Northern Ireland was on the globe and where Haiti was located.
He didn't point out Augusta, Ga., on the globe, which is where he blew a 54-hole, four-shot lead at the 2011 Masters. He was tied for the lead at the turn but shot 80 for the round and finished 10 strokes behind winner Charl Schwartzel.
In case you're wondering if McIlroy was permanently scarred by the experience, he wasn't. He's getting a little tired of everyone telling him what a gracious loser he was, but he'll get over that, too.
"Golf doesn't seem like a big deal at all, which is a great mindset to have," McIlroy said. "I sort of had that mindset before. Golf's a game. You hit a little white thing and go find it again and try putting it in the hole. It's not that big of deal in the big scheme of things."
The trip was a big deal. To McIlroy. To UNICEF, for which 200 stories (oops, 201) have been written about his visit to Haiti. And to his father, Gerry.
"What he did was unbelievable," said Gerry, who is at Congressional with his son. "He actually said to me that if you have a bad 18 holes of golf that puts everything in perspective. He was happy to do it. And he'd be happy to do it again."
McIlroy plans to go to Haiti again, if not at the end of this year then definitely next year. He has to. He has to find out the name of the little girl.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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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2011 U.S. OPEN
Course: Congressional CC, Blue Course
Where: Bethesda, Md.
Yardage, par: 7,574 yards, par-71