Rising golf star Rory McIlroy distributes bars of soap to children at a kindergarten run by UNICEF in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

When Rory McIlroy touched down Tuesday night in Washington, with two days of preparation for the U.S. Open straight ahead, he hopped in a car, and headed to the freeway. And as he looked out into the evening, he considered something that wouldn’t have crossed his mind even 48 hours earlier: Man, he thought, this ride is smooth.

“I’d been in a four-wheel-drive whatever-it-was for two days,” McIlroy said. “There’s no roads, no streetlights, no infrastructure at all. There’s nothing.”

Monday morning, McIlroy flew to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on a goodwill mission for UNICEF. Since returning, he has changed his Twitter profile picture from a photo of him, as a toddler with a golf club, to one of him, as a smiling young man holding a smiling Haitian child. He has considered, over and over, what he saw a full 18 months after a devastating, 7.0-magnitude earthquake ravaged an already poverty-stricken country.

He saw endless piles of rubble. He saw people living in tents. He saw the dome atop the presidential palace caved in, teetering. He has the photos on his phone to remind him of each step.

“There’s stuff there that I never thought I’d see in my life,” he said.

Rory McIlroy has top-10 finishes in the Open, the British and two at the PGA. (JAY LAPRETE/REUTERS)

He also saw schoolchildren who were, somehow, full of hope, a maternity ward where mothers hoped their kids would grow up in a different Haiti. “The spirit, not just of the kids, but the whole country, was incredible,” he said. But drive between the staged, celebrity-drops-in-to-inspire shots, and there was only devastation. In all of Port-au-Prince, McIlroy said there is a Digicel building, providing cellular service to the nation’s nearly 10 million people, and the hotel in which McIlroy stayed.

“That was basically it — 18 months later,” McIlroy said. “And, I mean, people say it’s a lot better than was it was last year.”

McIlroy is a native of Holywood, Northern Ireland, and one of golf’s most promising young stars. Speaking Thursday afternoon in sweltering heat after 18 holes of mid-day practice at Congressional Country Club, he was well aware of how incongruous this situation could seem — a 22-year-old millionaire floating in to a distraught country for a look-see, then returning to the most posh surroundings the Washington area has to offer, preparing for the U.S. Open a week later. All the cliches — about learning life lessons, about not taking things for granted, about eyes being opened — apply, he said.

“A little bit of perspective now and again is a good thing,” McIlroy said.

To this point, McIlroy’s perspective has largely centered on golf. He first played when he was 2. He left school to pursue the sport as a career at 16. At 22, he has already held the first-round lead at the British Open (a 63 last year at St. Andrews) and the Masters in April. He has top-10 finishes in the U.S. Open, the British and two at the PGA Championship.

He also has the experience of rising on Sunday morning in Augusta, Ga., carrying a four-shot lead into the final round of the Masters, and blowing it. Though he must be considered among the contenders at Congressional, his last 18 holes in a major resulted in an indelible image — McIlroy, burying his head in the crook of his arm following a wayward drive at 13. He shot 80.

“I felt awful for him,” said reigning U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell, a fellow Northern Irishman who is close enough with McIlroy that he walked the grounds at Augusta National on Sunday, following his friend. “I spoke to him via text message that night. I thought he handled himself like the gentleman he is, the sportsman he is. . . . He’s got a great attitude, great role model for young kids to see how to compose themselves and carry themselves on the golf course. Just watch him play 18 holes. He’s got great energy, and he’ll certainly do great things in the game.”

McIlroy is steadfast in that belief, too. He has now been around the lead enough at majors that he would like to win one and get on with it.

“They’re huge,” he said last week, after he took the first-round lead at the Memorial Tournament. “They’re major championships, and you want to really try and get your first one out of the way and kick on.”

That was McIlroy’s mind-set in flying to Washington after his journey to Haiti. He had never seen Congressional before, but after 18 holes Wednesday and Thursday, he assessed it as “fantastic.” He will return Monday, play nine holes each on Tuesday and Wednesday, and get on with his next pursuit. “I feel comfortable on it,” he said. “It’s long. You’ve got to fly the ball. The greens are getting firm already. . . . You’ve got to shape it, primarily right to left, which is fine with me. I think it’s great.”

It was, to that point, the only golf course he had seen this week. Tuesday morning, he was supposed to travel to the Petionville Club, a nine-hole track outside Port-au-Prince that once was Haiti’s only golf course. Now, it serves as a tent city for thousands of refugees, their homes destroyed in the quake. Monday night, a tropical depression produced heavy rains across Haiti. Flooding and mudslides ensued, and the death toll is now approaching two dozen. Many tents in the Petionville Club were washed away.

“You didn’t want to intrude, because a night like that happens, spirits in the camp are not going to be very good,” McIlroy said. “It’s hard. It would’ve been great — well, it wouldn’t have been great to go and see it, but . . .

Monday, he played soccer with Haitian children who had no idea who he was and met volunteers who flew in from Europe in the days after the quake and never left. Wednesday, he teed it up at Congressional, the course all to himself. Next week, he will once again chase his first major.

“The whole experience was quite inspiring,” he said. “It changes how you think.”