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“We knew he was so good that it was stupid not to get him involved,” he says.

Even before Rory could walk, Gerry was bringing him to the club, adds Paul Gray, the general manager.

Rory would be lying on his buggy just watching his dad hitting golf balls for the first 10 months of his life,” he says. “As he got older, and could get out of the buggy, he was crawling around on the tee. … Then, of course, Gerry had plastic clubs out there and that kept him occupied.”

Holywood’s 5,000-yard short course suits juniors because “they can reach the greens in two shots,” its hills force players to adapt to “all sorts of different lies: ball above your feet, below your feet, uphill lies, downhill lies,” and its small greens mean “they develop quite good short games, because they miss a lot of greens, obviously,” Gray says.

Rory “was here pretty much every day,” he adds. By age 7 or 8, “he was a proper little player.”

The brick and glass clubhouse is functional, not snobby, with somewhat threadbare carpets, a bar that serves a smooth pint of Guinness and a welcoming attitude to juniors, although Rory sometimes provoked frowns by hitting plastic balls inside, off the walls.

But there was never any hint that McIlroy was railroaded into golf by his parents. Instead, say those who know him, his ambitions were all his own. As a youngster, he called himself “Rory ‘Nick Faldo’ McIlroy” and would saunter into the club’s pro shop to practice his autograph on scorecards, writing “The Open Championship” at the top, Gray says.

“Even at that age, he was painting really big pictures for himself,” he says. “I have no doubt in my mind that he could see every shot when he was filling that scorecard in, visualizing himself being there someday.”

When he was naughty, Rory’s parents sometimes took away his clubs. And, Bannon says, Rory was even known to have slept with a club in his hand, his fingers clasped in a grip the coach wanted him to learn.

But McIlroy’s journey to the pinnacle of golf _ he heads to the U.S. Open ranked No. 6 in the world _ was also a team effort.

To pay for the ambitions of their only child, McIlroy’s mother worked factory night shifts while his father tended bar and cleaned locker rooms at a Belfast rugby and cricket club and then served in another bar at nights, says Colm, the uncle who babysat the youngster in the hours when both parents were away.

“They put all their efforts into him,” Bannon says. “They sacrificed everything for Rory. Any money went into Rory traveling places.”

Stevenson, the school principal, also let him skip classes and exams so he could travel for golf, and hid the lad’s absences from education authorities. Stevenson says he didn’t want to later be known as the man who blocked the path of Northern Ireland’s biggest sports talent since George Best, the Manchester United football player with fleet feet and a destructive weakness for booze who died in 2005 at 59.

In his final year of school, McIlroy “was probably away from school more than he was at school and I was covering for him,” Stevenson says. They agreed he would do five leaving exams but, “in the end, he sat one,” getting top marks in physical education.

Stevenson said he initially worried that the parents, not Rory, might be pushing him toward a career in golf but soon realized it wasn’t the case.

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