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“Gerry looked me in the eye and said, ‘Mr. Stevenson, I know what you’re thinking.’ He said, ‘It’s not me. It’s him,’” Stevenson recalls.

Rory “in his own wee shy way” also said, “‘I’m going to be a golfer, sir,’ and this was not parroting what dad wanted or what mum was telling him to do,” Stevenson adds.

“In his genes, in his psyche, in his heart, this is where it lay,” he says.

One thing McIlroy seems never to have lacked is self-confidence.

Gray remembers McIlroy in his midteens surrounded by huge crowds forming a tunnel 40 yards long on a fairway at a tournament.

“He just stood up as nonchalantly as you like, you know? Pulled an iron out, made this swing, whipped the ball onto the green and I’m just thinking, ‘That’s just different class, to be able to focus on your shot with people standing nearly on top of you,’” Gray says. “Never once did he turn around to them and go, ‘Could you stand back please’ like other players would or ‘Give me more room.’ He just accepted it.”

The first time Rory out-drove his father and Colm, he walked up to his ball and then turned toward them 10 yards back and shouted, “Everybody all right there?” the uncle recalls.

“You could never say to Rory, ‘No, you can’t play that shot.’ If you said, ‘You can’t play that, Rory,’ the next day he’d be out practicing it. Fearless, basically,” he says.

This being Northern Ireland, where strong political and religious beliefs have provided excuses for spilling rivers of blood, and Rory being ‘our local lad,’ everyone has a solid opinion about what those who don’t understand the mental anguish of golf cruelly call “the choke.” That, of course, was when McIlroy played like Woods of old for three days at the Masters before blowing the lead on the final round.

Back at home, that epic collapse is now cause for the Northern Irish version of a Gallic shrug. Too young, too eager, too inexperienced, too early in his career, runs local wisdom. Again, those who know him say McIlroy seems to have quickly moved on. And there’s real local pride in the way he graciously accepted his disappointment. In doing so, McIlroy flew the flag for cherished Northern Irish virtues of being honest, polite and grounded. He was “Catch yourself on!” personified. People, not just from Northern Ireland, wrote supportive letters to the Holywood Golf Club.

“A pile of mail,” Gray says. “He came and picked them up and went home and read them all.”

Northern Ireland people need their heroes, and certainly needed them in the dark days of the Troubles. … Somebody who speaks like us, who comes from our place whose only real claim to fame is that we murder each other at regular intervals,” Stevenson says. “Rory has now occupied, probably, that No. 1 slot in the hearts and minds of Northern Ireland people, right across all the communities. … Rory has cut through all of that.”

Colm says the Masters experience “will make him stronger, definitely.”

“He has so much belief in his own ability,” he says. “The way he looks at it, you know, is he had those three days and you can’t not be a world-class player if you lead the Masters after three days.”

Bannon adds: “His game’s too good to be scarred by this type of thing, you know? He’ll come back stronger, and he’ll do it, he will. Tom Watson blew up in a lot of Opens; I mean you’ll never hear that now, and he won five of them. There’s a lots of guys that blew up in last rounds until they learned how to handle it.”

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