The following is excerpted from the New York Times bestseller Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the PGA Tour. The paperback version was released this week, and is available here.
The life of Rory begins in Holywood, County Down, Northern Ireland, a small coastal town on the Belfast Lough, just a five-mile drive from the capital city itself. Gerry McIlroy, a onetime scratch golfer, married Rosaleen McDonald in 1988. Their only child, Rory, came along a year later, and was swinging plastic clubs before his third birthday. They weren’t rich—Gerry was a bartender at the Holywood Golf Club—and they had to take on extra jobs to pay for their Rory’s travels on the junior golf circuit. Gerry became a cleaner, and Rosaleen worked nights in a 3M factory, all to support their son’s dream.
There is nobody born in that complicated nation who escapes the stain of sectarian violence that has battered the six counties since the partition of Ireland in 1920. While the rest of the island became the Irish Free State, and an autonomous republic in 1949, Northern Ireland remained under British control. Before long, it was a battleground in the fight between the Catholics who wanted to join the rest of Ireland and the Protestants who remained loyal to the crown. The history of the young country is one of murder and terror, of hunger strikes and bombs and broken truces. Even a young man like McIlroy, born just nine years before the Good Friday Agreement that brought a measure of peace to the nation, can’t escape the ugly history.
Like many of his countrymen, Rory doesn’t have to travel far back in time to find tragedy. Joe McIlroy, the brother of Rory’s grandfather Jimmy, made the mistake of moving his family to a Protestant neighborhood of east Belfast in the late sixties, at the height of “The Troubles.” The McIlroys are Catholic, and Joe was a computer technician who thought he and his wife and four daughters could live peacefully in the middle-class community. He was proven wrong almost immediately, enduring constant abuse as he stubbornly tried to forge an ordinary life.
In 1972, with his daughters sleeping upstairs, Joe came down to fix a washing machine in his kitchen. He didn’t know that a group of gunmen from the Ulster Volunteer Force—Protestant paramilitaries—had camped out in his garden, and were waiting for him. They opened fire through the back door, and hit their target seven times. Wounded, Joe managed to fight his way into the living room, where he collapsed in the arms of his wife, Mary. She ran screaming into the street, his daughters rushed downstairs, and Joe McIlroy, thirty-two, died in his home—an example for any other Catholic who thought he could move into a Protestant neighborhood.
This was the most dramatic instance of sectarian violence affecting the McIlroys, but they were never far from the religious crucible that defined life in Northern Ireland. Rory’s grandfather Jimmy repaired cranes on the Belfast docks, but was banned from the shipyards themselves, which were reserved exclusively for Protestants. He took up golf, playing at the Holywood Golf Club, where he and his sons were in the club’s minority Catholic population. Even in Holywood, where the family settled, they were outnumbered by more than two-to-one.
Despite the specter of Joe’s death as a haunting backdrop, the McIlroys never became extremists. Today, Rory maintains an iron silence on the political situation in Northern Ireland, and that mind-set seems to have begun with his father and grandfather, who strived to coexist in a fraught environment. Writing for The New York Times, Niall Stanage posited that this nonviolent approach is particularly prevalent in McIlroy’s generation. You can see Rory as the most visible figure in a broad movement among young Northern Irish to let their religious affiliations fade into the background, so that they can be defined by something—anything—else.
At the Sullivan Upper School, Rory wore a blazer with the Gaelic motto “Lamh Foisdineach An Uachtar”—With the gentle hand foremost—an aspirational philosophy for a generation who were raised in the shadow of violence. This was no small gesture in Northern Ireland; personal identity has been a function of religion and politics for so long that divorcing from it seems almost revolutionary.
Then, too, Joe McIlroy’s death might have played an instructive role for the family, one whose lesson resounded with greater clarity when Rory became a superstar: Maybe it wasn’t the safest idea for a Catholic with a sizable platform to espouse controversial views—at least not as long as he wanted to live safely in Northern Ireland.
Rory takes this neutrality to an extreme. Before he won his first majors, it was difficult to discern whether he was Catholic or Protestant. The same could be said for Graeme McDowell, who was raised in a Protestant family—neither spoke about their backgrounds unless they were forced, and even then they used broad language, careful never to be pinned down to a single controversial view.
You can count on two hands the number of times Rory’s religious background has infringed on his public life—a remarkable feat of discretion for one of the world’s greatest golfers, especially considering his outgoing nature. The first big intrusion came after his triumph at Congressional Country Club, when the twenty-two-year-old won the 2011 U.S. Open by eight strokes for his first major title. What happened in the immediate aftermath—a brief, unremarkable moment for anyone who didn’t understand the tensions of his home nation—reverberated back home.
As the Daily Mail described it, a fan threw an Irish flag at Rory as he walked away from the 18th hole. He caught it instinctually, the feed cut away, and when it returned a moment later, the flag was gone.
The mystery of the vanishing tricolor sparked an online furor, with loyalist Protestant populations praising McIlroy and nationalist Catholics accusing him of everything up to and including treason. Internet message boards burned with rhetoric and armchair analysis, Facebook pages sprouted up, and in some quarters, the whole episode overshadowed the stellar week of golf that had earned him his first major championship. Nobody actually knew what happened to the flag, but what became exceedingly clear in the aftermath was that Rory had been right to stay quiet—it proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that when it came to Northern Irish politics, he was damned both ways.
The two times McIlroy was asked whether he felt more Irish or British—first by the PGA Tour, second by Fox Sports—he answered with the same word: “Pass.” Later, he gave insight into the thought process that had governed much of his career, saying, “I have to be very careful in what I say and do.”
He would have liked nothing better than to avoid the topic entirely, but as it happened, the International Golf Federation successfully lobbied the IOC to have golf included in the 2016 and 2020 Olympics. For McIlroy, who had played for Ireland in World Cups, it brought up a dicey question: Who would he represent if he played in the 2016 Games?
“I’d probably play for Great Britain,” he told The Telegraph in 2009. “I have a British passport. It’s a bit of an awkward question still.”
A rash comment by his standards, and it provoked the expected reaction. Ireland is known for turning against its brightest and best, and if they needed an excuse to vilify Rory, they had it. Stanage, in The New York Times, quoted another famous line from Joyce—“When the soul of a man is born in this country, there are nets flung at it to hold it back.” As if to prove her point, rumors about Rory’s Olympic decision, and all the reactionary condemnations that came along with it, forced him to write an open letter on his Twitter account in 2012.
“Having just won three out of my last four tournaments,” he began, “including a second Major Championship, I was hoping that my success on the golf course would be the more popular golfing conversation today!”
By early 2013, he was considering not playing at all in order to avoid the controversy. That summer, Karen Crouse wrote a feature in The New York Times that seemed to encapsulate how Ireland took out its self-loathing on anyone with the audacity to strive for greatness. Like so many famous Irish artists of the past, McIlroy had by then left the country, settling in Florida. He had also left his Irish management company, Horizon Sports Management, to start one of his own, which sparked a feud with Graeme McDowell, a Horizon shareholder. His game was suffering, too, and had been since he switched from Titleist to Nike the previous November.
In Crouse’s piece, a customs official called McIlroy a “snob,” another deemed him a “spoiled brat,” and fans at the Irish Open disapproved of his private parking space with—God forbid!—a special placard. To top it off, the general secretary of Ireland’s Golfing Union was quoted saying that the public didn’t support Rory like they once had because of the Olympics situation.1
For years, McIlroy tried to keep his cultural identity separate from his public image. That would be a very simple thing for most golfers, but for a kid from Northern Ireland, the effort alone was remarkable. And, of course, it couldn’t last. It wasn’t long before he was entangled in the same struggle that had defined his country for decades. He’s handled it with as much grace and reserve as possible, but understanding this aspect of his background is key to understanding Rory as a person. Outside of his golf, there is always this lingering shadow—the one that he’s spent a lifetime trying to escape, and the one he never will.
Rory learned golf from his father as a toddler, and loved it so much that he began watching instructional videos on his own. His talent was obvious, and the Holywood Club—a no-frills affair that stood in contrast to the haughty Royal Belfast Club nearby—changed its membership rules to allow Rory to join at age seven.
He began working with Michael Bannon, and the two have stayed together ever since—today, Bannon travels with McIlroy full-time. As Golf Digest reported in August, Rory stands out for the fact that his swing has remained more or less the same since his early childhood days. Unlike Tiger, who has undergone significant transformations at various stages of his career, Rory doesn’t foresee the essential components ever changing.
YouTube offers a small archive of Rory’s childhood, starting with a home movie shot in a dark living room, where the three-year-old takes full swings with a wedge, hitting a ball off the carpet and onto the couch while soccer highlights play on the small television in the background. There’s also an interview from BBC Northern Ireland after the nine-year-old Rory won the World Junior Tournament at Doral, in what the anchor called “the searing Miami heat.” Rory, all freckles and grins, has the same soft, lilting accent that’s become familiar today—a contrast to the flat Northern Irish timbre you hear from the likes of McDowell and David Feherty. In another clip from that year, on Ulster Television’s the “Kelly” show, he juggles a ball on his wedge, and then shifts the club between his legs without missing a beat. He chips a golf ball into a washing machine, and tells the host that Darren Clarke is his favorite Irish golfer.
“If the Americans have Tiger Woods,” the host says in closing, “we have young Rory.”
From Doral, he put together a sparkling junior career that included a wide array of tournament wins and honors, including a victory in the 2004 Junior Ryder Cup. He set a course record at age sixteen with a 61 at Royal Portrush, the Northern Irish course that hosted the 1951 British Open. That same year, he dealt with his only real crisis of faith in golf.
“I was ready to give it up,” he told me in Akron, at the WGC-Bridgestone Championship. “I just won the Mullingar Scratch Cup, and I remember the drive home with my dad. It was like a three-hour drive. And I said to him, ‘I don’t like this anymore. I don’t enjoy it. I just won, and I don’t know, I’m not happy, I’m not excited.’”
His parents told him they just wanted him to be happy, and while they may have been experiencing a bit of panic inside, they advised him to do whatever he wanted. He went home, and didn’t golf for three days. When those three days had ended, he decided that he loved golf again, and today he chalks it up to the hormonal issues of a “grumpy teenager.”
“There was a teenage rebellion, yes,” he said. “For three days.”
The angst never returned, and his career took off with startling speed. In 2007, still just eighteen, he was the low amateur at the British Open in Carnoustie. After turning professional, he won his first European Tour in Dubai before his twentieth birthday. In 2010 he joined the PGA Tour as one of the world’s top-ten golfers, and he wasted no time making an impact. He won his first event at Quail Hollow with a course record 62 in the final round, set another course record on Thursday at the British Open in St. Andrew’s, and nearly joined Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson in their playoff at the PGA Championship.
He made the strange decision in 2011 to return to the European Tour and to skip the Players Championship—choices he regretted almost immediately, and which led to him firing his agent Chubby Chandler that November and joining Horizon. Before he left, he nearly won the Masters, racing out to a four-stroke lead on Sunday before posting a disastrous 80 to drop out of the top ten. It was his hardest moment as a professional—he had lost his confidence on the back nine, and stopped trusting his putter. He faced the media, and all he could hope was that the next time he had a chance at a major, he’d handle the pressure with more aplomb.
He didn’t have to wait long. At the very next major stop, he tore apart Congressional Country Club and won the U.S. Open running away. The next March, after a win at the Honda Classic, he ascended to the world number 1 for the first time. He held the top spot through a spectacular season that included wins in Dubai, two FedEx Cup events, and a record-setting eight-stroke win at the PGA Championship, his second major.
At twenty-three, he was the Player of the Year on both the PGA and European Tours, and unlike other child stars—Scott, Rose, Day—he was naturally aggressive, and had the transcendent game to put himself in the hot seat again and again until he could occupy it comfortably. Now, two years before his twenty-fifth birthday, he had become more than just a young superstar—he was the heir apparent to Tiger Woods.
There’s a fearlessness and intelligence to McIlroy that transcends the course, and these are the qualities that place him above golfers of equal—or at least near-equal—talent. They also get him in occasional trouble. Northern Irish politics aside, Rory won’t hesitate to speak his mind, especially when he feels threatened. It’s almost as though he makes up for the gag order on politics and religion by letting loose with an added bit of volume on everything else.
Some of the controversies he’s encountered are nonstories whipped into a froth by the media. When he called the Ryder Cup an “exhibition” in 2009, and admitted that he’d rather win individual tournaments, he was only saying what every golfer felt to be true. Many of them loved the Ryder Cup, and the atmosphere was unlike any other, but there’s not one player who would trade a victory there for an individual major. In fact, you get the sense that some of the most passionate Ryder Cuppers, like Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia, love it that extra bit because they’ve never won a major—it’s a substitute high, in a way.
Other moments, though, have been truly tense. When a TV reporter and former golfer named Jay Townsend said on air that Rory should fire his longtime caddie, J. P. Fitzgerald, McIlroy took to Twitter, firing off a harsh salvo at Townsend: “Shut up . . . you’re a commentator and a failed golfer, your opinion means nothing!”
“I don’t know if he’s got something in for my caddie, J.P.,” McIlroy said in a presser later that week. “He’s been going at him for the last three years. And it was just one comment too far. I’ve got to stand up for my caddie. J.P. is one of my closest friends . . . and I just had to say something.”
He was called immature in some corners for the reaction, but the more you learn about Rory, the more you realize it wasn’t youth or immaturity at all, but the cunning instinct of someone who realizes that if you let someone push you once, they might keep pushing forever.
And Rory, despite the soft voice, freckles, curly hair, and the last days of his puppy-dog looks—“I want to pinch his cheeks, he’s so cute!” I heard a young girl squeal at the Deutsche Bank Championship—is no pushover. His fire is reminiscent of the man he’s chasing, though Rory on the whole seems more stable and less self-destructive than Tiger.
The two spent some time together late in the 2014 season in New York, appearing together on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. The next week, I asked if he could recognize a kindred spirit when they had a private moment together—something they could see only in each other, and that set them apart as psychological competitors.
“In some ways, yes,” he said. “We talked about a few things, and he’s telling me like, I’m not going to let you win a green jacket next year . . . and I might not look it, but I’m the exact same way. I’ve got a very competitive spirit, but it would only be on a golf course. Like, I’ll let you win in a game of pool. I don’t care about that. But golf, it’s my thing to be competitive at and it’s my thing to succeed in, so of course I’m really competitive. And even if it doesn’t look it, on the inside I’m trying to beat those guys to death.”
But trying and doing are two different things, and it’s the rare golfer who masters both in his early twenties. There’s a ruthlessness to Rory, and watching him over the course of a year, I came to believe that his ability to put others away with such cold efficiency boiled down to the simple fact that he’s smarter. He rarely makes the mistake of playing recklessly, the way Mickelson can. He knows when to turn his analytical mind off and play with pure instinct, rather than linger in an intellectual funk or give in to anger. If Rickie Fowler takes a Zen approach to the game, McIlroy understands the art of war. He’s equipped with the golfer’s equivalent of street smarts, and at every moment, he’s the biggest threat on the course.
That’s why he defended his caddie. By firing back at Townsend, he didn’t just shut up a lone commentator. He showed loyalty, and broadcast a clear signal to anyone who might be thinking of taking their own potshots. Speak carefully, he seemed to say, or you’re in for a fight, and I’m not the kind to pull punches.
Rory has an intuitive understanding of power. How to earn it, how to wield it, and how to keep others from taking it away. Like Tiger, he’d also learned to sniff out weakness at a young age, and to conceal his own. It’s too bad that the “Shark” nickname was wasted on Greg Norman, because Tiger and Rory are the ones who can truly smell blood.
By 2013, the war with Horizon Sports Management was in full swing, and the equipment change was sabotaging his game.2 McIlroy contended that Horizon coerced him into signing an unfair “limiting contract” that cost him almost seven million dollars in related fees, which apparently occurred at a Christmas party in 2011. Forbes reported that Horizon’s deal gave them 20 percent of “off-the-course income”—including the enormous contract with Nike, which was less than the ten years and $250 million originally reported, per SI’s Alan Shipnuck, but not significantly less. It’s an incredibly high commission rate—significantly higher than the terms given to Graeme McDowell by the same company. But McIlroy’s argument—that he was young, naive, and lacked legal counsel—sounded a bit thin, and Horizon decided to take the fight to him by countersuing for around $3 million in unpaid commissions.
The lawsuit was settled out of court in early 2015, but in 2013, the confluence of stressors contributed to a decline in his game. It also hurt his friendship with Graeme McDowell, particularly when he announced in May that he’d be leaving to form his own company, Rory McIlroy Inc.
In details that emerged over the next year, Horizon accused Rory of timing his lawsuit to hit a day before McDowell’s wedding in September 2013, which would be attended by Horizon agents—a wedding Rory skipped in favor of a Nike photo shoot. It later came to light that McDowell was a Horizon shareholder, which raised questions about his harsh comments toward McIlroy, as well as his initial recruitment.
Rory McIlroy Inc. took full effect late in the year, with Gerry McIlroy assuming a leadership role, but Rory’s 2013 season dragged on with one mediocre result after another. At the Honda Classic, he withdrew in the second round after a 7-over start, and cited pain in his wisdom tooth—a dubious explanation at best, considering how frustrated he appeared with his game, though he did send a doctor’s note from Belfast to the PGA Tour the next Monday.
He relinquished his number 1 ranking after holding it a year, and his low point came at the British Open in Muirfield, when Nick Faldo publicly lectured him about focusing on golf. McIlroy, looking irritated and a bit sullen, defended his work ethic and said, “Nick should know how hard this game is at times. He’s been in our position before, and he should know how much work we all do put into it.” Three days later, he finished up an ugly 79-75, failing to make the cut in a British Open for the first time in his professional career.
By late 2013, though, his game had started to round into something resembling its old form, and a one-shot win over Adam Scott at the Australian Open in December hinted at an imminent return to greatness.
In Sydney on New Year’s Eve, he sat in a boat with his longtime girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, the tennis star, in the harbor. Fireworks went off, and he was prepared to propose when a fellow passenger, quite drunk, jumped in the water and spoiled the moment. He saved the proposal for his hotel room, she said yes, and finally, it seemed as though his life had settled into a calm spell.
“I feel I have stability in my life now,” he told The Telegraph, “and the engagement will only help with regards to knowing everything in my life is set. I mean, if you get engaged, you plan to spend the rest of your life with that person, so it is a big decision. But she’s definitely the right girl for me.”
Or, maybe not.
In May, a few days after they sent out wedding invitations, Rory called off the wedding. Worse, he broke the news to Wozniacki with nothing more than a brief phone call.
“The problem is mine,” read a statement issued by Rory McIlroy Inc. “The wedding invitations issued at the weekend made me realize that I wasn’t ready for all that marriage entails. I wish Caroline all the happiness she deserves and thank her for the great times we’ve had.”
Rory’s ice-cold method of deep-sixing his fiancée was particularly eyebrow-raising when you consider an excerpt from a New York Times article in May 2013:
“At the end of last year, McIlroy sat down with his strength coach, Steve McGregor, who also works with the golfer Lee Westwood and has consulted with the Knicks and Manchester United.
Citing scheduling difficulties, McIlroy ended their professional relationship. But to ensure that they would remain friendly, he chose to tell McGregor about his decision face-to-face instead of in a text message or an e-mail.”
In other words, a trainer merits a sit-down dismissal, but a fiancée gets the kiss-off by phone.
McIlroy is a conscientious person, or he at least fakes it well. If a reporter asks him a question with a flawed premise, for instance, he’ll correct the man obliquely in response, rather than pointing out the error in public as many golfers love to do. The courtesy he extended to McGregor in 2012 wasn’t out of the ordinary.
Considering all that, the Wozniacki phone-dumping was a bizarre move, and inexplicable on its face.
Those who hoped that karma would punish McIlroy for the cruel breakup were disappointed. He made his key putting alignment fix at Augusta, and already his game was looking nearly as strong as it had in 2012. In his very first tournament after the breakup in 2014, he won the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship with a final round 66, chasing down Thomas Bjorn from seven strokes behind. The message had been received around the golf world—Rory was back, and he was shooting some very low scores.
What we knew, in the days leading up to the British Open, was that if he could beat his so-called “Friday curse,” everyone else would be in serious trouble.
And Rory—shark that he was—knew it, too.
1The general ill will died down slightly in 2014, when Rory announced that he would be playing for Ireland after all.
2In a wonderful piece of irony, the New York Times ran a feature on how well Rory and Horizon worked together just two weeks before their acrimonious split.
Shane Ryan is a writer for Paste Magazine and has freelanced for other outlets, including Grantland, Golf Digest, and ESPN the Magazine. He covered over 30 PGA TOUR events in 2014, and his book on the game’s young stars, Slaying The Tiger, is out in paperback.