“First of all, I like his moxie,” said Jack Nicklaus, who holds golf’s record with 18 major championships. “I suppose that is the right word. I like the way he carries himself — his moxie.”
A McIlroy victory is no certain prospect — the last time he was in a similar situation he shot a boyish 80 two months ago in the final round of the Masters. But McIlroy’s performance this week has reaffirmed this much: He is an appealing comer with the face and loping limbs of a baby spaniel, whose stunningly pure ball-striking and modest good manners mark him for inevitable stardom.
“There’s no point in everyone saying you’re going to be a major champion when you’re not one,” McIlroy said earlier this week. “You have to go out and prove them right and prove to yourself that you deserve to be one. It’s very flattering and it’s great that people are saying these things about me but I need to do it first, and I haven’t done it yet. I just need to go out and play the golf that everyone thinks I’m capable of. And if I can do that for four days, then hopefully I’ll be sitting in front of you guys on Sunday night and maybe saying, yeah, maybe I could be a multiple major champion.”
It’s a typically unspoiled sentiment from McIlroy, whose attitude comes directly from his Northern Irish relations. His mother Rosie, a former factory worker, is known to tell him, “Get over yourself.” The family hails from Holywood, a village just five miles east of Belfast where his grandfather Jimmy worked the docks repairing shipping cranes, and where the McIlroys still live.
“It’s a very close-knit town where all the people know each other, and a very friendly town,” says Michael Bannon, the head pro at Bangor Golf Club in County Down, who is the only golf teacher McIlroy has ever had, and who has known him since he was a baby.
McIlroy’s father Gerry grew up in a council house, a version of government-built affordable housing, which sat just 200 yards from the Holywood Golf Club. Gerry worked as a bartender at the club, and would take Rory to the course in his stroller.
By the time Rory was just 21 months old he could hit a golf ball with a small plastic club his father gave him, and according to family lore he hit a 40-yard drive as a 2-year-old. As a 4-year-old he was chipping balls down the hallway of the family home and into the washing machine, at which point Gerry took him to Bannon, then the assistant club pro at Holywood. Though Gerry was a near-scratch golfer, he had the sense to turn his son over to someone else.