May the Fourth be with you on your birthday, Rory McIlroy! Yeah, I’m sure you saw enough memes and tweets with that phrase. And I just couldn’t help incorporate it into wishing McIlroy a very happy 28th birthday.
They grow up so fast! See the above picture. It truly doesn’t feel like six years have past since Rory, then 22 years old, ran away from the field at the rain-soaked U.S. Open at Congressional to secure his first major by eight shots.
Less than three months after his disappointing meltdown on the back nine at the Masters in the final round and blowing a multiple-stroke lead (and unveiling to the world the cabins that are about 20 yards left of the 10th fairway), McIlroy won in commanding fashion. I can’t help but mention that I was on the record saying I was confident he would have no problem with any demons from Augusta National at the next major and predicted a strong showing (and I might have even declared him as my favorite to win). I’m glad others remembered I had said that, like the guys from the Slate podcast, with whom I spoke with the Monday after McIlroy’s impressive victory and referenced my confidence in the young lad prior to the tournament.
It was just a feeling. You see, 2011 was what I considered my “rookie year” covering the PGA Tour beat. I had a dream year in 2010, where I was fortunate to secure amazing bylines and opportunities with outlets like Sports Illustrated, ESPN.com and Wall Street Journal. When I look back on all those incredible experiences and trips, it seems surreal, and when you’re in the moment, you can’t fully appreciate the moment, but now, I reflect and I’m like, holy shit, that was not “normal” by industry standards.
But I digress. 2011 was also McIlroy’s rookie year on the PGA Tour. He had previously turned down membership in 2010 at the advice of his then-manager Chubby Chandler, a European Tour loyalist. While I was impressed with the 21-year-old McIlroy, particularly when I first saw him speak in person with the media at the 2010 Open Championship after he followed a record-tying 63 in the first round to post 80 in essentially unplayable conditions, I never had the opportunity to speak with him one-on-one that year.
It’s kind of crazy to me that he is now older than I was when I first became acquainted with him at the 2011 Honda Classic. You see, LPGA pro Christina Kim, an old friend from junior golf, drove into town for a day or two because she had recently joined Chubby’s stable of players and stopped by to meet members of his team and hang out with several of the men he represented, including Lee Westwood and McIlroy. Christina invited me to join them, so that’s how I met that crew.
I felt a strange tension between Westwood and McIlroy that week off the course. Chubby held court every day and evening in the lobby bar — these were those good ol’ days before *every* Tour player had a residence in the Palm Beach area and the Honda Classic was a much more chill event, unlike the shitshow it’s turned into in the last 4-5 years. The lobby bar was a pleasant experience frequented by a number of players back in 2011. Westwood and McIlroy, along with lots of others players who weren’t locals, stayed in the resort. So did the media — the tourney offered a great rate back then and it wasn’t like staying at night club.
So I met McIlroy and company via Christina the afternoon following the second round, I believe, and found him very congenial, “normal” and he wasn’t like a stereotypical Tour player, who was either awkward and/or thought he was the shit/better than everyone else. It was refreshing.
On Saturday I was making my way across the putting green on my way to the flash area (interview area) and/or the 18th green to find a player I needed to speak with. The practice green was empty, aside from McIlroy’s then-designated manager/handler Stuart, who was about 20 yards to the left and walking in the same direction. Suddenly, I saw Rory approaching on the other side of the green and I had seen that he double-bogeyed all three holes of the ominous Bear Trap (it was a very windy day) to shoot 77.
I surveyed my surroundings trying to find a way to avoid an awkward encounter. There wasn’t anywhere to go. It was inevitable that I would run into Rory. Why was that a situation I felt uncomfortable with? Well, you see, after double-bogeying three of his last four holes and posting a high score, it can be awkward because most players are pissed and you never know what to say. I mean, I feel this way with some Tour pros that I’ve known and/or been good friends with since I was 15 or 16! I think I have grown more comfortable with handling uncomfortable run-ins, but not knowing Rory well, I was like, oh crap, what do I say?
Before I had the chance, Rory greeted me first and actually initiated conversation. I was shocked. This wasn’t normal. To this day, after seven years on Tour, there are still players with whom I’ve interacted with on multiple occasions that would walk right by me without exchanging polite pleasantries or acknowledging my existence. So, you see, when Tour pros behave like normal people and treat me with human decency, you bet I’ll remember it — there are like only a little over a handful of key moments in the past seven years that stand out in my mind. It’s a bit sad that the smallest gesture goes such a long ways.
Rory initiated conversation with me and his manager Stuart soon joined and sort of casually referenced Rory’s rough finish. Rory shrugged and expressed how baffled he was with the wind and how his club selection on either the 15th and/or 17th wasn’t even close to the right one and came up well short. I remember thinking that was kind of strange since McIlroy grew up in Northern Ireland and I would have thought that a bit of wind wouldn’t have thrown him off so much. But again, he wasn’t angry or frustrated; he was quite nonchalant and I can’t emphasize how normal he was. (Later that day or the following, I admitted that I had felt awkward and he said that he could tell, but not to worry about him being angry and weird after a rough finish or bad round.)
I recall running into him that Saturday evening at the bar, where he posed for multiple pictures with fans. He was ranked no. 8 in the world and was well known by golf fans as he had long been on the radar as “the next big thing,” but compared to his celebrity a year later when it became much tougher for him to hang out in public without being harassed and/or recognized, it was pretty chill.
At the same time, it seemed like he was still approached by strangers constantly, especially cougars — they were big fans — and he was so patient and congenial with everyone. He made sure everyone had drinks and then when a group decided to leave the premises, he was like, oh, I need to get the tab! His manager Stuart informed it had been taken care of. When Rory thanked him, Stuart reminded him that it was coming out of Rory’s pocket, ultimately. It was funny.
After that week, I was a Rory fan. He was such a breath of fresh air compared to the average Tour pro and his candid was more than refreshing. He was always polite and cordial with the press and just “real.” He was genuine and it was clear he was a solid person with a good head on his shoulders. He was still young and hadn’t really had any scar tissue and/or “bad” press, so he was never paranoid — and all things considered, six years later, he is still that 21-year-old kid I met in March 2011.
I can’t remember if it was that week or it a few months down the road, but I recall telling young Rory to never change and promise to always speak his mind; he vowed to do so. And against all odds, he’s remained true to his word. Sure, he’s not as accessible as he was when I first met him at the 2011 Honda Classic, but he’s still approachable and real, and best of all, not afraid to be himself and voice his opinions — even if it may not be a popular one or “politically correct.” He’s always been adamant to do things his way and stay true to himself and his humble beginnings. And I can’t even begin to tell you the number of players who haven’t accomplished anything close to McIlroy that have become too cool for school and “changed.”
McIlroy now has four majors and he’s even had to sit out a few because of injuries. He is well aware and will never cease to remind the world that of all the young stars and big names these days, McIlroy has three more majors than his contemporaries, like Jason Day and Dustin Johnson.
Only three players in history have had four majors by the age of 28. Guess who? Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Bobby Jones. I think it’s safe to say that McIlroy will likely not end his career with only four majors to his name. If he stays healthy, he’ll easily win 8-10 — that’s been my guesstimate since, like, 2011, and I’ll stick with it.
As you know, Rory recently wed American Erica Stoll, who used to work for the PGA of America. They met in 2012 and Rory had her to thank for arranging a police escort for McIlroy to make it to his tee time in Sunday Singles at the Ryder Cup. McIlroy showed up with only a few minutes to spare, didn’t warm-up and beat Keegan Bradley with ease en route to Team Europe’s unforgettable comeback with the Miracle at Medinah.
Rory and Erica managed to keep their wedding private and so far no pictures have leaked from the grand event at Ashford Castle in Ireland — an impressive feat in this day and age! The ceremony was reported to cost an estimated $1.2 million with extra layer of security, according to Golfweek. Perhaps I have a skewed perspective, but that seems like a rather reasonable number, all things considered.
A number of celebrities attended the wedding, according to a report:
Guests included One Direction star Niall Horan, Ed Sheeran, members of U2 and Coldplay’s Chris Martin; golfers Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington, Paul McGinley, Martin Kaymer, Thomas Bjorn and Shane Lowry; former Manchester United player Ryan Giggs; and actors Jamie Dornan and Jimmy Nesbitt. Stevie Wonder and Sheeran entertained at the reception…
Tough to beat real life concerts from Stevie Wonder and Ed Sheeran. Sounds like it was a grand event. The couple has reportedly been honeymooning in various exclusive luxury destinations in the Caribbean.
Congrats, Rory and Erica!
McIlroy will reemerge as a married man next week at The Players Championship.
Happy 28th Birthday, Rory! Hope you had a wonderful day and keep doing you!
— Skratch (@Skratch) May 4, 2017