What makes McIlroy tick? Look to his roots

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HOLYWOOD, NORTHERN IRELAND (AP) - “Catch yourself on!”

That’s the melodious phrase people in Rory McIlroy’s homeland of Northern Ireland direct at those they suspect have let their egos get the better of them. It means “Get real!” or “Come back to Earth!”

That phrase, and the peer pressure it describes of not getting too big for one’s boots, offers a vital clue to how McIlroy has managed to juggle the expectations of possibly being golf’s Next Big Thing without taking on the surliness of Tiger Woods at his worst. The prodigious talent has big ambitions, big hair but, so far, no big head.

When he finally wins his first major _ perhaps at next week’s U.S. Open _ and his earnings go from merely huge to ridiculously stratospheric, the expectations behind that phrase also explain why those who know McIlroy think they’ll still be bumping into him at normal places like the Dirty Duck Ale House in his hometown of Holywood, perhaps sinking a pint and a plate of sticky toffee pudding while gazing at the choppy waters of Belfast Lough where the Titanic launched a century ago.

From his uncle, friends, his swing coach and former school headmaster, the verdict is unanimous: Even as his fame and wealth rocket skyward faster than a tee-shot, McIlroy hasn’t really changed. Nor will he, they say, in part because he’s always been mature beyond his age but also because the 22-year-old makes a genuine effort to stay as grounded in Northern Ireland’s earthy culture as the rhododendrons that sprinkle pink petals on the fairways where McIlroy’s father introduced him to golf as a baby.

“The worst crime you can probably commit in Northern Ireland circles is to ‘bum’ or ‘blow’ about yourself, as we would say. To be pompous, airs and graces, have an overblown sense of your own importance, to take yourself too seriously … and Rory is steeped in that culture,” explains John Stevenson, the recently retired principal of Sullivan Upper School in Holywood where McIlroy was a star pupil.

Which means that if his uncle, Colm, teases McIlroy with a cheeky text message after he’s flopped at a tournament, the young star takes it with the humor with which it is intended, not with a “Don’t you know who I am?” sulk.

“He would text back, ‘Well, I’m lying in a five-star hotel. What are you doing?’” Colm says, laughing. “He’s changed very little. There’s obviously things you have to change, you know? There’s a lot of those hangers-on now. But, you know, family-wise and friends-wise, you couldn’t have it better.”

Northern Ireland is too small for McIlroy to develop delusions of grandeur. Spend any amount of time here and you are liable to bump into someone who says they recently spotted him in a cafe, a restaurant, a supermarket or whose friend of a friend knew someone who maybe once perhaps dated him. That intimacy, that familiarity, seems not only to suit McIlroy but helps him recharge his batteries after private-jetting around the world to play golf. Northern Ireland is where he still has the friends and people he not only grew up with but appears to go out of his way to keep in touch with.

“This is one of the safest places to live, Northern Ireland. And I can see now, going to America and these places, that you would have to live in gated communities. … But over here it’s different,” says Michael Bannon, McIlroy’s coach from boyhood who still coaches him today.

“There’s only, what, a million and half people living in Northern Ireland? It’s a small place. People get to know your business, get to know you. Rory, if he was mega, could still walk down the street and go to Belfast. He’s not going to change,” he says.

“He’s a home-bird, you know? He just loves to be at home, spend a week at home, drive about in the car, meet people and just be himself,” the coach adds. “That’s very important so that you come back, you rewind, you get your R&R and then you head out again.”

Holywood, the quiet suburb of Belfast where McIlroy grew up in a red-brick house with an artificial putting green in the front yard, has two British Army barracks guarded by razor wire and cameras but is one of those pleasing and all too rare places where perfect strangers say “Hello!” and give you a nod in the street. It escaped the worst of the bombings and shootings that scarred Northern Ireland for three decades but which largely have ended since the British territory’s 1998 peace accord.

McIlroy grew up in the atmosphere of optimism that blossomed with that deal. Perhaps that is part of the reason he treads fairways with such bounce in his step. In that watershed year, McIlroy won a prominent under-10 tournament at Doral, beating 80 kids from two dozen countries. Afterward, all freckles and cheeky grin, the 9-year-old chipped a golf ball into the open mouth of a washing machine, just as he did at home, and performed other tricks on Irish television. He could already drive a ball 200 yards, McIlroy told his envious interviewer, and said he practiced all day, every day when he could. Asked if he wanted to become a professional golfer, McIlroy’s response was unhesitating: “Yes.”

His grandfather, Jimmy, worked all his life repairing cranes in the Belfast docks where the Titanic was built, picking up golf in his 30s at the Holywood Golf Club in the lush hills above his home, overlooking Belfast Lough. He transmitted the game to Rory’s father, Gerry, and uncles, Colm and Brian. Rory’s cousin, Fergus, 12, now wants to follow in his footsteps, too. The club bent its rules to let Rory in as a member at age 7, after a mandatory induction interview where “he assured us that he wouldn’t be a nuisance to anybody and that he knew the rules,” says Eddie Harper, who organized the juniors.

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