Now, Rory McIlroy returns as a four-time major champion with the weight of a nation on his shoulders as his native Northern Ireland welcomes golf’s 148th Open Championship for the first time in 68 years because of political strife in the province.
The significance runs deep for McIlroy — he describes it as “surreal” — and his mantra this week will be to “look around and smell the roses,” a euphemism for taking it all in and savoring the home support he will receive as he chases a first major title for five years.
“No matter who wins this week, having the Open back here is a massive thing for golf and for the country,” McIlroy, 29, told a packed news conference at a wet and blustery Portrush Wednesday.
“Sport has an unbelievable ability to bring people together.”
But as the boy who became king in these parts, a second Claret Jug would confer god-like status in Northern Ireland.
McIlroy was the nine-year-old golfing prodigy who wrote to Tiger Woods telling him he was gunning for him, and who followed through on his promise.
He was the youngster from Holywood, near Belfast who won the world Under-10 golf championship. He was the mop-chaired, chubby tyke who went on a popular TV talk show and demonstrated his prowess chipping golf balls into a washing machine.
He was also the thrusting young colt in ice-white trousers and shirt who broke the course record with a score of 61 at Portrush when he was just 16.
He was the man who reached world No.1 and won four majors before his 25th birthday — one of only three players to have ever done so — with career earnings so far north of $60 million.
And if he were to triumph at the Masters next year, McIlroy would become only the sixth player ever to have won all four of golf’s majors at some point in his career.
It’s been a meteoric rise, ensuring he’s exalted as Northern Ireland’s biggest star.
On Tuesday evening, as the shadows lengthened past 7 p.m. McIlroy spent more than 20 minutes signing autographs and posing for selfies with a never-diminishing crowd of fans by the side of the 18th green.
He is well aware he was one of those hero-worshipping youngsters not so long ago. The logo on his T-shirt Tuesday was of a washing machine in a nod to the “long winter nights” he spent appropriating his mom’s kitchen appliances for practice.
McIlroy’s legend began early as he learned the game with his father Gerry at the unassuming Holywood Golf Club outside Belfast.
Instantly hooked, he’d spend every single waking hour at the club and cry when he was told it was time to go home. Gerry and mom Rosie worked multiple jobs, pouring “every penny” into their only child’s obsession.
His victory in the world Under-10 championship in Florida created the first waves.
“The buzz was going around there was this talented little kid, but it wasn’t until he got into his teenage years that you started to think he could be very special,” said Stephen Watson, who wrote and produced the BBC’s “Road to The Open” documentary about the journey to bring golf’s oldest major back to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.
Word quickly spread about McIlroy’s prodigious talent.
Seeing McIlroy play for the first time at Holywood was all the proof Watson needed to know he was different.
“I just thought, ‘Wow,'” he added. “He just hit the ball so far for someone so young and his swing was amazing. He absolutely smoked this thing down the first hole and I was like ‘Really?’ He was very impressive.”
Irishman Shane O’Donoghue, a long-time golf presenter, commentator and host, was equally stunned when he first saw McIlroy in action in 2004.
Though McIlroy was well known on the amateur circuit, he came to wider prominence as a chirpy, chubby 18-year-old at the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie, where he tied for third after the first round, bettering the then 12-time major champion Woods by one shot.
Joining the paid ranks was like adding a spark to rocket fuel.
O’Donoghue has seen him grow from precocious talent into a global superstar, based in Florida with the huge mansion, fast cars and private jet.
“He was a nice, normal kid. He hasn’t changed,” adds O’Donoghue. “Circumstances have changed phenomenally around him and he’s had to deal with all of that but he’s still the same Rory. At the heart of it he’s still Gerry and Rosie’s boy.”
Despite the fame, wealth and celebrity status, the Holywood star is still very grounded with a close coterie of school friends. When he parted company with long-time caddie JP Fitzgerald in 2017, McIlroy turned to best mate Harry Diamond to shoulder the bag.
He’s had the same coach, former Holywood pro Michael Bannon, since he began the game using cut-down clubs.
“As far as his personality goes, he hasn’t changed a bit. He’s never forgotten his roots and never forgotten his friends,” says Watson, who reckons McIlroy has eclipsed the fame of legendary Manchester United footballer George Best.
He adds: “We had George Best, who was a globally world reknowned and very famous sports star and Rory McIlroy is equal if not bigger than that.
“It’s hard to describe how popular and famous he is here. He’s enormous, there is no bigger.”
McIlroy’s major breakthrough came with a record-breaking victory at the 2011 US Open, two months after he infamously blew a four-shot lead with a back-nine collapse at the Masters.
“It was a sensational rebound,” says O’Donoghue.
“He was approachable, accessible, attractive, CEOs wanted to be around him, kids wanted to be like him, men wanted to be his friend and woman wanted to either mother him or adore him. He just had the X-Factor.”
McIlroy added the US PGA title in 2012 and clinched the Open at Hoylake, near Liverpool, England in 2014.
Not only that, but dad Gerry was able to collect on a bet he and three friends had struck back in 2004 at odds of 500-1 that the young Rory would win the Open “within the next 10 years.”
They each scooped £50,000.
A few weeks later McIlroy added a second PGA Championship title and was the hottest property in golf.
But the major well has since dried up, a manifestation of a career punctuated more by bursts of brilliance than the relentless domination of Woods in his heyday.
“He is a bit mercurial but that’s part of his normality,” says O’Donoghue. “He’s not a robot, he is an artist.
“He will have down times, he will have the odd disaster, but my god, the highs more than make up for it because when he is on he’s different class.”
Occasionally, McIlroy’s honesty or impishness has landed him in bother.
In the 2011 Open at Royal St George’s, a struggling McIlroy told reporters: “I’m not a fan of golf tournaments predicted so much by the weather, it’s not my sort of golf.”
It was blunt and created a stir.
McIlroy gave another honest assessment of his inner thoughts, describing himself as “brain dead” after a disastrous first round at the Open at Muirfield in Scotland in 2013. “Sometimes I feel like I’m walking around out there and I’m unconscious,” he said.
Then there was the mess-up with his alarm clock that meant he was nearly late for his tee time on the final day of the Ryder Cup and needed a police escort to reach the course. He still won his match against Keegan Bradley as Europe won the “Miracle of Medinah” in 2012.
“He’s never lost that boyish quality and never lost the quality of just telling it like it is. It gets him into trouble occasionally but the great ones are all a bit dogged in their opinions and views,” says O’Donoghue.
McIlroy is back up to number three in the world and is trending in the right direction to resume his major quest. He’s finished in ties for fifth, fourth and second in his last three Opens and in caddie Diamond has a man who as a talented amateur has played even more competitive rounds on the Dunluce course than he has.
While they will be competing with a laser focus, McIlroy still plans to savor the experience.
“I’m going to love being out there and having the crowds and having the support. If that can’t help you, then nothing can.”
He added: “If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, hopefully by Sunday that will be good enough.”