Northern Ireland’s great sporting hero right now is 22-year old Rory McIlroy, a golfer from Holywood, a suburb of Belfast located five miles east of the city centre. Rory has always had a lot of potential, as evidenced by his television appearance at age 9, setting a course record at Royal Portrush at the age of 16, and being the low amateur at the (British) Open Championship at Carnoustie in 2007 at age 18. As the 2011 season started, McIlroy had won two tournaments (one in Europe and one in America) and had tied the major championship record by opening with a 63 in the 2010 Open Championship (he eventually finished third), and had risen to the top 10 in the World Rankings. In the first major of the year, the 2011 Masters, Rory held the lead following each of the first three rounds, and held a four-stroke lead heading into the final day following rounds of 65-69-71. Even though he struggled on the first nine on Sunday, he was still tied for the lead with 9 holes to play. A drive hooked over 50 yards offline on the 10th led to a triple bogey, and a 4-putt on the 12th left the poor young man in tears, his chances of winning a tournament that had seemed in the bag for him all week ruined. He eventually closed with an 80, a horrendous score for a professional, and plummeted into 15th place.
The way that Rory handled himself in post-round interviews following his Sunday collapse at the Masters won him a lot of supporters around the world. Unlike Tiger Woods, who has always been gruff and not friendly to the media, McIlroy generally came off as very classy, particularly following what could have been, for a more fragile player, a career-shattering event. McIlroy was quoted as saying,
“I’m very disappointed at the minute and I’m sure I will be for the next few days, but I’ll get over it,” he said.
“I have to take the positives and the positives are I led this golf tournament for 63 holes. I’ll have plenty more chances, I know that. It’s very disappointing what happened today and hopefully it will build a little bit of character in me as well.”
At 22 years old, his performance (for most of the tournament) and how he handled himself afterwards made it clear to everyone he had a bright future ahead. Just a month ago, he visited Haiti as an ambassador for UNICEF Ireland, which really gave him even more perspective regarding what occurred in Augusta in April.
Additionally, McIlroy is incredibly close to his family, who he thanks every day for his success. Coming from a middle-class family, and with golf being an expensive game, at one point, his dad worked three jobs to help support his golfing career-they could tell that Rory had the talent to succeed, as his work ethic towards practicing golf was incredibly strong, starting from as young as age 3. His mom also worked full time at a factory-and some of this money went to putting a putting green in the family’s front yard.
So when it came time for the second major of the year (professional golfers are judged primarily on how many majors-the four are The Masters, US Open, (British) Open Championship, and (US) PGA Championship that they win over their career), Rory had a new mindset. After getting some putting lessons as well, which gave him more confidence in his stroke, which had also plagued him down the stretch at Augusta, Rory was extremely confident.
Paired with two top American golfers, Phil Mickelson, who has infamously finished runner-up at the US Open five times but has never won it, and Dustin Johnson, widely considered the top young American player today (who had battled some demons at majors of his own over the past year-blowing a final round lead at the 2010 US Open with an 82 on Sunday, and getting penalized on the 72nd hole of the 2010 PGA, costing him a shot at a playoff), McIlroy waxed both of them in the first round. Firing a nearly flawless, bogey-free round of six-under par 65, McIlroy held a 3 shot lead following the first round (Mickelson and Johnson shot 74 and 75, respectively).
In round 2, McIlroy continued his phenomenal play, becoming just the fifth player ever at the US Open to reach double digits under par (and the fastest to do so, in 26 holes), when he holed out for eagle on the 8th hole to reach -10. At this point, Mickelson was even applauding him, as he could tell that Rory’s performance for the week was dominant, and that no one else was going to have a chance. McIlroy eventually reached -13, which was the most under par any player had ever been at the US Open, through 35 holes. Although he double-bogeyed the 18th, his first hiccup of the week, he stood at -11 after 2 days, with rounds of 65-66. His lead was 6 shots over Y.E. Yang (who is most famous for being the only person ever to come from behind to beat Tiger Woods at a major on Sunday, and the first Asian winner of a major) following Round 2. McIlroy tied a major championship record for largest lead after 36 holes, and also for the lowest score over 36 holes at a US Open.
Round 3 was more of the same. While McIlroy was not quite as good as the first two days, his incredibly consistent and steady play continued. He made only one bogey in round 3, and finished with a round of 3-under par 68 which left him at 14-under par for 54 holes: 65-66-68-for a total of 199. He increased his lead to 8 strokes over the nearest competitor (still Yang), and set further records for lowest score ever in the US Open in relation to par (-14), and lowest 54 hole score.
With an 8-stroke lead headed into the last day, McIlroy’s lead seemed to be insurmountable. But with what had happened at Augusta two months earlier still recent, Rory was not taking it for granted this time. He had learned from his experience, and was much calmer and more confident before the final round, according to both him and his father. McIlroy was never threatened on Sunday, as he continued his record-setting play with a final round of 69, which left him at 16 under par for the week, and a total of 65-66-68-69=268. He won by 8 strokes over another young promising golfer from Australia, Jason Day (who ended up finishing second at the Masters which McIlroy squandered), and throughout the course was greeted with “Let’s go Rory” chants from the Washington DC crowd. He set a record for the most under par ever in a US Open at any point (he had reached -17 before a late bogey), most under par to finish at the US Open (his -16 bettered Tiger Woods in 2000 by four), and the lowest number of strokes taken over 72 holes (also lowering the previous mark by 4).
McIlroy’s performance at Congressional was truly legendary. While the course had been criticized for playing too easily (20 players finished under par-easily a record at the US Open, which regularly features less than five players finishing under par), it was very clear that McIlroy was by far the best player in the field that week. At the age of 22, his performance drew numerous comparions to Tiger Woods’ triumph at age 21 at the Masters in 1997, where he shattered all the scoring records and won by 12, and Tiger’s 15-stroke victory at the 2000 US Open, which is the largest margin of victory ever at a major. With Tiger’s struggles with both injuries and his mental state following his extramarital affairs, golf has been looking for the next dominant force. With Rory’s blitzkrieg at the US Open at the young age of 22, the sky is truly the limit for him. In addition, it is quite apparent that he will be a popular force, as he is truly family-oriented person who is very humble and respected. He has also dated a girl from his hometown for over six years. His class and maturity in both victory and defeat has won over golf fans across the world, particularly in his homeland of Northern Ireland, and also in America.
Graeme McDowell, from Portrush, Northern Ireland, and the winner of the 2010 US Open, lauds McIlroy as being the best player he’s ever seen, and Jack Nicklaus, the all-time leader in major victories, also sees great things for his future as well. It is quite remarkable that Northern Ireland, with a population of 1.8 million people, has produced the last two US Open champions (both players are also ranked in the Top 10 in the world)-and this has been a huge source of national pride.
McIlroy, who is younger than McDowell, represents a gigantic opportunity for Northern Ireland to gain positive press. McIlroy, who is Catholic, grew up in a predominantly Protestant town, and has done his best to avoid “choosing a side” in the sectarian controversy that embroils the land. He went to a non-sectarian school, and it is clear that his parents raised him to have a post-conflict mindset. Thus far, Northern Ireland has embraced his success story, as he has been all over the newspapers, was honored by politicians from both sides of the aisle at Stormont, and is set to receive a parade in Holywood. McIlroy has also said since his victory that he looked forward to coming home and sharing his happiness with his town.
However, with this being Northern Ireland, some people have to try and frame McIlroy as a potentially political figure. As McIlroy walked off the 72nd hole at Congressional to sign his scorecard, a fan threw a tricolor (the flag of Ireland) at him, and he brushed it off him and generally ignored it. This has led to a Facebook group called “Rory McIlroy turning down the tricolour,” which has over 5000 fans already I think it is much more likely that he was just in a hurry to get and sign his scorecard and enjoy his celebration. McIlroy has said, however, that he would play for Great Britain and Northern Ireland when golf comes to the 2016 Olympics. On the other hand, McIlroy has also been seen with a tricolor at the 2007 Walker Cup, which was played in Northern Ireland at Royal County Down (an amateur match between the US and UK/Ireland), and also played for the Ireland team at the World Cup of Golf with Graeme McDowell (the whole island of Ireland has a team, it is not differentiated)-despite the fact that both players are from Northern Ireland. There is another picture with McDowell and McIlroy holding up the “Northern Irish flag”-the white one with the Red Hand of Ulster and a crown. His personal website also indicates
The question of whether Irish sports teams should be united is a whole other can of worms that I’m not going to get into. But arguing about McIlroy’s political allegiance is a complete shame that detracts from what is truly a great accomplishment from a truly humble person who values his family above anything else. McIlroy considers himself Northern Irish, from what I can tell, and we will leave it at that. Whether you believe that politically Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom or Ireland, or its own nation, right now, McIlroy identifies with the political entity where he was born, which is Northern Ireland. I do not believe that Rory cares about choosing a side here-I feel as though he has been raised as a post-conflict figure, considering that he went to a non-sectarian school as a Catholic in a predominantly Protestant town. He has probably come to the realization (and he is far too humble to admit it) that he truly represents hope for a peaceful Northern Ireland. He has a chance to be the next Tiger Woods, and having the most successful golfer in the world will bring lots of positive press and tourism to Northern Ireland-a figure that can unite hopeful citizens of this area. Juxtaposed against the riots that are again starting in East Belfast, McIlroy’s success shows that unlike the few people who are trying to make life hell in Northern Ireland again-most should identify with him, and hope that he brings along a future that will end sectarianism. Tiger Woods’ dad said he would be as large as Gandhi through his impact; however, Rory McIlroy, like it or not, represents a figure that can truly transcend the boundaries that remain in Northern Ireland, as his humility makes him a perfect ambassador for this wee place.
I did not get to watch that much of the golf tournament-as Farset does not get Sky Sports 2, the channel that the US Open was broadcast on over here. I finally found an online feed to watch the third round on Saturday. After I played golf on Sunday (and met Darren Clarke, a pro golfer from Northern Ireland who Rory often described as his hero and largest influence in the golfing world) and got back to Belfast, I realized that I needed to head to a pub to catch the end of Rory’s display of history. I ended up at one of the few pubs open in Belfast late into a Sunday night (due to the time change, the US Open ended at around 12:30 am here), as I wanted to see the local make history with local people. The pub was pretty crowded, with everyone cheering for McIlroy. A lot of people left before he finished, because the result was assured and it was getting late, but I could tell that no matter whether you had a side in the conflict or not, everyone in Northern Ireland was rooting from the 22 year old from Holywood to triumph in America. And so he did. The world awaits to see what further history he can make, as he truly could be the greatest golfer who ever lived.
Darren Clarke and I
Rory McIlroy with Tricolor at the 2007 Walker Cup
Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, the 2010 and 2011 US Open Champions, with the Flag of Northern Ireland
Rory McIlroy after winning the US Open
Rory McIlroy Celebrating after Winning the US Open