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  • Alistair Tait

Rory McIlroy has never taken golf for granted

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

Rory McIlroy once gave me one of the best quotes on golf that explains why all of us who love this beautiful, frustrating game keep coming back for more.

“Golf is a bit like an exam paper. I like the fact that each day asks different questions of you even though you can be playing on the same course.”

The year was 2007. McIlroy was just 17.

McIlroy spoke to me privately for a Walker Cup preview ahead of the match at Royal County Down. I’d spoken to him many times during his amateur days, but that particular conversation opened my eyes to what a unique future superstar he really was. Despite his abundant natural talent, despite being clearly destined for greatness, he was humble, down to earth, and obviously wasn’t taking anything for granted.

While he may have dreamed of winning majors and becoming world number one, which he did today by replacing Brooks Koepka at the top of the official world golf ranking, he never saw success as his right.

The word “if” came up many times in that 2007 interview:

“If I make the Walker Cup team. If I get my European Tour Card.”

The contrast between McIlroy and Ian Poulter couldn’t have been starker. Poulter never used the word “if.” For Poults it was always “when.”

“When I get my European Tour card, when I win on the European Tour, when I play in the Ryder Cup.”

For example, these words from Rory during that 2007 interview would never have left Poulter’s lips:

“This is probably going to sound really cheesy, but if I am lucky enough to play in major championships eventually then I’ll just be happy to compete in them.”

Lucky enough to play in majors? Back then McIlroy had been tipped not only to play in majors, but win multiple titles.

Rory wasn’t the only one not completely sure of what the future held. Michael Bannon has coached Rory since he was a boy at Holywood Golf Club. Bannon and Rory’s dad Gerry were good friends. Gerry knew he had a talented son, and was eager to know just how talented.

When Rory was 10, Gerry asked Bannon the obvious question.

“I told Gerry that I knew his handicap would be scratch by the time he was 12 or 13. But Gerry said: ‘how good is he going to be?’ I had to be honest and say, ‘I can’t tell.’
“And I couldn’t tell at that age. I wish I could sit here and say I did, but there are lots of kids who hit it well, really well, but you can’t tell until they start playing competitions.”

Bannon changed his tune when a 13-year-old Rory won the Ulster Boys at Donagadee, taking the title from players much older than him.

“That’s when I first thought, ‘my God, I can’t believe how good this boy is.’ He was so mature.”

Now 30, McIlroy is mature. He’s sure of his place in golf’s firmament now. However, as Paul Kimmage’s excellent three-part interview currently running in the Irish Independent proves, McIlroy still believes he’s sitting golf’s exam paper. Rory’s answered a lot of questions correctly, but there’s a few he’s still struggling to answer.

What’s abundantly clear is Rory still doesn’t take golf for granted.

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