No place resides closer to Rory McIlroy’s heart than this little suburb five minutes from Belfast, and there is no face more special to the 12,000 residents than McIlroy’s.
Here the members of Holywood Golf Club invited McIlroy to join at age 7, changing their rules because he was that good. Here he pounded so many balls with an old copper pitching wedge, hitting it so squarely time and again, he wore a thumb-sized dimple into the club face. Here officials at Sullivan Upper School were so aware of his golfing acumen that “we cut him a lot of slack,” the former headmaster John Stevenson said, “because it was clear golf was his future.”
The Maypole Pub (refer to it as “Ned’s”) sits at the main crossroads in the town center, just across from the flagpole that’s supposedly stood since 1700, an ode to a shipwreck. The entire downtown — deli, travel agent, dress shop, butcher, baker — seems contained, there to serve. Why leave?
“A nice, wee spot,” according to Stephen Moore, an owner of Orr’s Butchers in the town center, where McIlroy’s grandmother once worked.
“Friendly. Quiet. Nice people,” said Ricky McCormick, a childhood friend of McIlroy’s. “It’s small enough that people know each other. There’s not too much to what’s going on, but I suppose that’s a good thing.”
What’s going on here now, increasingly, is McIlroy. With the British Open beginning Thursday at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England, Moore’s was just one of the stores that still sported the remnants of McIlroy’s breakthrough victory at Congressional. In the window was a poster congratulating McIlroy.
There was another at the post office, one at Garry’s Barber Shop, one at Oasis Travel and Cruise Center, more at a sandwich shop and a pizza place and on and on. The bar at Holywood Golf Club received a special permit to stay open late the night of the final round of the U.S. Open. The spilled beer is gone. The banners still hang.
“Everyone just felt so proud,” said Valerie Skinner, who owns a bakery in the town center that has sold thousands of cookies featuring McIlroy’s image. “All of a sudden, people were talking about Rory, so they were talking about Holywood.”
A popular talking point since the U.S. Open is that success won’t change McIlroy — “I really think he’ll know how to handle it,” Gerry McIlroy, Rory’s father, said the night of his victory. Still, it’s clear that the relationship between hero and home town has evolved, if only slightly.
This is the only place Rory McIlroy has ever called home, the place where Gerry and his mother Rosie met and married. When Rory was a toddler, they lived just down the street from the only coach McIlroy has ever had, Michael Bannon. On one wall in the restaurant at his home club, which is littered with McIlroy memorabilia, hangs a thank-you note, written in the hand of a young boy, to “all the staff and members of Holywood Golf Club for all your kind generosity and spirit.” At the bottom, in crooked cursive, is perhaps McIlroy’s first autograph.
“He’s no different,” said Paul Gray, the general manager and former pro at Holywood. “But obviously, things are different, you know? And I suppose we all feel different. It’s sort of a funny thing. People are more wary, even like with the phone. I just feel like, ‘Oh, he’s tired,’ or he doesn’t need to be bothered.”
“Six or seven months ago, Rory would be walking right by here,” Moore said, looking out the windows of his butcher shop. “Now, he’d get mobbed.”
McIlroy enters this week’s British Open as the favorite, fetching 8-to-1 odds at Paddy Power bookmakers, a half-block from Holywood’s main intersection. At 22, he is enough of a star to be invited to the royal box at Wimbledon. Holywood, congenial and inviting and downright beaming about its hometown boy, has released him to the world. McIlroy, though, will always come back.
“For me,” McIlroy said at Congressional, “it’s the best place on earth.”
In a sense, McIlroy took a bit of Holywood with him to the Masters, the year’s first major. Three childhood friends — Harry Diamond, Mitchell Tweedie and McCormick — tagged along. They rented a house, spent the week tossing about an American football and barbecuing in the backyard.
“It kept him relaxed,” McCormick said, “just having people from home.”
But even as McIlroy looked confident in building a four-shot lead entering the final round, those who know him best — those from Holywood — could sense that four shots might not be enough.
“At the Masters, the conversation was, ‘How are you doing?’ ” Bannon said. “And he’d say, ‘Yeah, not bad. I’m going to try this.’ Instead of ‘I’m going to do this.’ You could tell he wasn’t right.”
After the collapse — a final-round 80 — he met up with his buddies from Holywood, who, admittedly, “didn’t know what to say, to be honest,” McCormick said.
That night, the texts from Holywood — a mixture of condolence and encouragement — began rolling in. Ten days later, McIlroy returned home and popped into Gray’s office on the second floor of the small clubhouse. For a half-hour, they chatted about the Masters.
“He was very matter-of-fact about it,” Gray said. “He was certainly disappointed, no doubt about that. He was just really looking at how he felt, why he felt that way.”
According to Gray and Bannon, McIlroy has always been a player who looks at a shot, steps to the ball and swings. He is most grounded when he identifies the challenge and deals with it swiftly. So when McIlroy built a lead over the course of the week at Congressional, even as all of Holywood braced for a repeat — “People were so nervous,” Gray said — Bannon sensed McIlroy would handle it differently.
“You know when you’re talking to someone, and you know them so well, and you think, ‘This is different,’ ” Bannon said. “ ‘There’s no hang-ups. He’s confident he’s going to go out there and he’s going to do something.’ That’s what he sounded like.”
McIlroy maintained his eight-shot lead. He set U.S. Open scoring records. And on the night Holywood produced a major champion, it too changed a bit.
“It’s like the world’s media arrived,” Gray said.
Said Skinner, the baker: “People know us now.”
Bannon spent Tuesday morning scrambling about his office, making coffee, setting the day’s schedule of lessons and pulling out his laptop. He produced a DVD — “Rory: 8 years old” — and slid it in.
“Bend your knees a wee tiny bit,” Bannon said on the video. “Hold your balance. Hit it when you’re ready.” And the skinny young McIlroy, wearing a yellow Nike sweatshirt and a black Nike hat in the image of Woods, then his idol, obliged. The ball sailed off.
Since he first came to Bannon for real coaching at 7, McIlroy has been blessed with an otherworldly feel for the game. When McIlroy was 8 or 9, Bannon could say, “Hit a fade,” and he would. Bannon could say, “Hit a draw,” and he would.
“Just like a Seve,” Bannon said, inserting the name of one of the game’s most creative players, the late Seve Ballesteros, into the conversation. “He could feel the ball with his hands. He could feel the club. ‘Hit it high. Hit it low.’ He could just do it.”
And he did it constantly. McIlroy’s contemporaries would often finish a round and hang idly about the pro shop.
“Rory was never at the pro shop,” said Stephen Gordon, one of McIlroy’s peers at Holywood. “He was always out practicing. He just has a real passion for hitting golf balls. Not every 12-year-old would do that.”
Monday night, McIlroy played nine holes at Royal County Down, a renowned course down the coast from Holywood, with his father alongside. Gerry McIlroy once tended bar at Holywood Golf Club and elsewhere about town, taking night shifts so Rosie could work in a Belfast factory during the day. Thus, they could send their only child all over the globe to play golf.
Now, Gerry McIlroy’s job consists of picking up the stacks of mail that arrive for Rory at Holywood Golf Club, of managing Rory’s house some 20 minutes outside of town, the one with the putting greens and the driving range and the bunkers of all styles. Things weren’t always that way, and the nine holes with his dad reminded McIlroy of that.
“It was a really nice moment,” McIlroy said. “. . . It sort of brought back a lot of memories — playing with my dad, long summer nights, teeing off at 5 and sort of getting in at 9.”
But by the seventh hole, word had gotten out: Rory McIlroy is here. Rory McIlroy is here! The crowds arrived. In the span of a month, McIlroy has become a worldwide celebrity.
“I’ve already sort of noticed over the past three weeks it has been a bit of a life-changing experience,” McIlroy said, “and it’s just something I’m going to have to deal with.”
The people of Holywood are dealing with it now. Should he win the Open, prepare for cookies with a claret jug. The posters may never come down.