A year ago on Wednesday at the Honda Classic, Rory McIlroy was hanging out at the crowded I-Bar — in the lobby at PGA National Resort & Spa where he, along with most of the players, stay for the event. Wearing True Religion jeans and a T-shirt with a Miller Lite in his hand, he looked like an average 21-year-old, mingling and chatting with some friends. Fans periodically approached him for a picture or autograph. He happily obliged the request. It wasn’t a bother at all. You would never guess he was the No. 8 golfer in the world.
That same night I met Rory for the first time via LPGA golfer and mutual friend Christina Kim, who had arrived in town to have dinner with Chubby Chandler, head of ISM, the management company that had recently started to represent her, along with his players in the event, Lee Westwood and Rory (as you probably know, Rory and Chubby parted ways last fall). Obviously I’d watched him play quite a bit of golf and asked him questions in a few press conferences, but we weren’t on a first name basis. From afar, he always came across as a levelheaded and nice kid, and I found his candor refreshing.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out my impressions were true to life. In fact, he was perhaps even more down-to-earth and humble than I expected. I couldn’t believe how normal he was.
Two days later, I ran into Rory again. This time, it was shortly after he had fallen victim to the infamous “Bear Trap,” nos. 15-17 at PGA National, making three consecutive double-bogeys and signing for a 77 in the second round. Ouch, right? Well, I don’t think I can describe the story better than I did when it happened, so here’s most of the post I wrote on March 5, 2011:
Most the time when players make three straight doubles and shoot 77, it’s wise to steer clear of at least a 20-yard radius (obviously, there are exceptions and depends on the situation). I mean, what’s there to say? I hit some bad shots and it sucks. Of course, you can gauge the situation, but anyway, I ran into Rory’s manager Stuart Cage on the putting green as Rory walked up after signing autographs for a good ten minutes.
He looked a little dejected, but mustered a smile and said to me, “Not wearing the boot!”
Stuart asked him about running into trouble.
From 163 yards on the par-3 No. 15, Rory took a poor swing at a five-iron against the strong wind. “It never had a chance,” he said. “It got caught in the wind and dropped straight in.”
On the equally intimidating par-3 No. 17, Rory pulled a six-iron from only 154 yards, but it wasn’t enough club and dropped in the water. Asked if the wind was stronger than on Friday, he said yes before correcting himself and explaining that it was blowing from a different direction than it was in the first two rounds — instead of coming across from the northeast, it was more from the north (in other words, the wind was gusting straight into his face instead of across from the left).
I asked jokingly if he at least made it to the midway point of the hazard. Rory, smiling, replied, “Yeah, but just barely past halfway.” (It was more like 10 yards short.)
“From the drop area, I had 121 yards and hit an 8-iron,” said Rory in disbelief. “Barely made it there.”
The 21-year-old Ulsterman seemed bewildered, not to mention humbled. “I can’t believe I was hitting 6-iron from 150 yards,” he said. “But I guess it should have been a 5.”
It happens. I was impressed with Rory’s attitude, which I think says a lot about his character. Even with players I know well, I keep my distance from them and let them cool down if they’ve had a tough time on the links. Rory’s always come across like a nice, down-to-earth guy in his press conferences I’ve attended. It’s not that often a top player acts the same when the cameras and microphones are turned off.
Well, a year later, a lot has changed for Rory, but he’s still just as candid, affable and grounded as he was before he blew it at the Masters and then dusted the field at the U.S. Open and became a huge superstar. He’s now ranked No. 2 in the world and closing in quickly to overtake Luke Donald for the top spot. Rory’s profile has almost increased exponentially (OK, maybe a bit of an exaggeration).
“I actually bumped into (Jack Nicklaus) at lunch yesterday at the Bear’s Club,” said McIlroy, laughing, during his presser this afternoon. “He actually didn’t recognize me — he didn’t have his glasses on so he couldn’t see who I was.
“He was like, (indicating Jack squinting), “Who is that, who is that?”
Rory reenacted the back-and-forth, which was quite funny.
Rory: “It’s me.”
Jack: “Okay, Rory.”
Now at the ripe age of 22, he is actually different than the kid I met at 21. He’s still young and he was already precocious for his age, but he’s all grown up now. He walks with a confident strut (but not cocky), his head held a little higher, and he even has some swagger. (Last year I thought he was almost too nice and worried that would hold him back, so this change is all good.) He’s visibly stronger and lost his baby fat and replaced it with muscle.
Despite all that’s happened in the past year, he’s still open and down-to-earth — thanks to his upbringing and childhood friends, who aren’t afraid to give him a hard time regardless of the circumstances.
“A lot of things I feel keep me grounded; the people I have around me, my mom and dad for a start, they are very grounded people,” said Rory. “And yeah, you know, the friends I have are the same friends that I’ve had growing up my whole life. They knew me when, you know, I was just going to school and playing junior golf and amateur golf.
“I don’t feel like I’ve changed in any way, but still, they have known me my whole life. They can still give me grief and they can send me pictures of being lost in white houses left of the tent at Augusta and it’s fine.”
Of course, he’s referring to No. 10 on Sunday at the Masters when we learned there were cabins about 50 yards left of the fairway, thanks to Rory’s drive off the tee. Oh, and his pals didn’t waste any time — they sent the photos while Rory was in the midst of his meltdown.
“They are brutal,” said Rory, laughing. “But I give them the same stuff, so it’s fine. That’s what you need. That’s what you need after something like that. You need someone to have a little bit of a sense of humor about it and make you laugh.”
Last year at this time he was already very recognizable, especially in the Palm Beach area, so imagine what it’s like now. Rory can’t necessarily hang out freely in the lobby bar at PGA National anymore, but I suppose it wouldn’t surprise me if he did.
What’s most important is that he realizes this is part of the life he’s signed up for and doesn’t mind the added scrutiny.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “This is what I’ve always wanted to be, a successful golfer. I don’t feel like I have to live that differently. But no, I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Don’t change, either, Rory.
(AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)