September 18, 2007 was a Tuesday.
Things that happened that day:
· Customers of Northern Rock formed queues outside the struggling bank’s branches throughout the UK and Ireland trying to withdraw their savings before the impending financial crash.
· Buddhist monks join anti-government protesters in Myanmar, starting what some called the Saffron Revolution.
· Pervez Musharraf announces that he will step down as army chief and restore civilian rule to Pakistan, but only after he is re-elected president.
· Rory McIlroy left the world of amateur golf.
It might not have been the news that shook the world’s newsrooms, but planet golf certainly felt the impact of the then chubby-cheeked, curly-haired kid from Northern Ireland deciding to give up his amateur status and start taking money of the grown-ups in the paid ranks.
McIlroy, then aged 18, was among the big boys. He wasn’t chipping balls into a washing machine any more. It was time to see how good he really was in a man’s world.
He didn’t have long to make an impact. Given the time of year he turned professional, it left him only a handful of European Tour events to play in and earn enough money (around €200,000) to make sure he guaranteed a place on tour in 2008.
So, two days after turning pro, he teed it up at the British Masters. An opening 69 allowed the world of golf to hail a new boy wonder. Hours later, following his second round 78, he was on the brink of disaster. It was an early roller coaster ride which set the thrilling tone for the next decade. Part of McIlroy’s enduring appeal are his extreme peaks and (perceived) lows. He made the cut at the British Masters and grinded over the weekend to a tie for 42nd place and a career first pay-cheque of € 15,128.
It was just a week later when he made his first real impression on the pros.
Knowing he needed to find a big performance to win a European Tour card, he bounced his way around the familiar links of St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and gave the world a real glimpse of his effortless genius. He produced a final round 68 during a pressure-packed final at the Old Course to cruise to a third place finish and seal his immediate future in one fatal swoop. Prize money of €211,321 put paid to that. Job done. What’s the next step?
It took almost 18 months to take the next significant step and secure that first victory as a professional. That it came at the Dubai Desert Classic had a fateful feel given the amount of time he had spent throughout his young golfing life in the Emirate. After a transitional year in 2008, during which he easily retained his European Tour card, he began the 2009 season all guns blazing, losing a play-off at the UBS Hong Kong Open (in November 2008) before picking up his first professional victory in Dubai two months later.
And so the story grows. He played out 2009 without another win, but his level of performance saw him push Lee Westwood all the way in the first Race to Dubai. Westwood would take the spoils that year, but McIlroy wouldn’t have to wait too long to claim that particular crown.
Augusta in April 2011 brought the first true test of his professional character. Yes, he had been through the struggles of adapting to the life of a global touring professional at such a tender age. There was the occasional bout of homesickness and childlike resistance to growing up fast in a cut-throat world of pro sport, but from golfing perspective he had generally cruised through the first three years. He was a European and PGA Tour winner (the 2010 Quail Hollow Championship) already, and heading towards a Major breakthrough.
Before that, though, came a 70-day period which defines McIlroy’s career so far.
The impact of what happened to McIlroy on that now infamous Sunday at Augusta and the way he handled such adversity after blowing a four-stroke lead on Masters Sunday to lose the tournament can’t be overstated.
He could have ran and hid in the immediate aftermath of the ‘meltdown’, but he took a deep breath and faced the world’s media. He handled himself the way we have come to expect – with dignity, refreshing honesty and even a little humour. But burning deep within was a desire to show the world that he was ready to win golf’s biggest prizes.
It took 70 days. Looking at the pictures from Augusta that year, you would think McIlroy’s career was over. Slumped over his driver on the tenth tee during the final round, the image of a broken Rory had been show more times than he cared to remember in the build up to the 2011 US Open. Ten weeks after losing the Masters, the pictures which flew round the world showed McIlroy and dad Gerry locked in embrace around the US Open trophy on Fathers’ Day.
McIlroy’s record-breaking, eight-shot victory at Congressional Country Club put down a marker on which McIlroy would build himself into the best player in the world.
After the US Open, the floodgates opened.
From 2012 to 2014, McIlroy elevated himself to a new level, becoming the best player in the world and collecting another three Major championships (2012 and 2014 US PGA Championships and the 2014 Open Championship). He also played a famous role in Europe’s greatest ever Ryder Cup victory, helping an inspired European team overhaul a four-point deficit on that unforgettable Sunday to complete the Miracle of Medinah.
That story could have been very different had McIlroy missed his tee-time against the red-hot Keegan Bradley. Confusion over time zones left Rory in need of a police escort to make it to the tee in time, but once he got there he took down Team USA’s hottest player to help silence the fervent American crowds.
McIlroy’s Ryder Cup journey is another enthralling and telling chapter in his ten year career so far.
Not long after turning professional, he rather innocently called the event ‘an exhibition match’. After making four appearances in the biennial match between Europe and the USA (winning three out of the four), he is now Europe’s talisman.
It is a sign of his ever growing maturity as a golfer that he has become Europe’s leader on and off the course.
He felt very much the rookie during his successful debut at Celtic Manor in 2010, and even when he was World Number One at Medinah in 2012, McIlroy felt that he was too young and inexperienced to be considered one of the team’s leaders. His comfort levels visibly grew at Gleneagles in 2014 but it was last year that he truly became the team’s leader.
His monstrous performance on and off the course at Hazeltine may not have been enough to prevent an inspired Team USA from winning their first Ryder Cup in eight years, but it showed the world that McIlroy was the beating heart of Team Europe.
I'm still as ambitious now as I was starting off my career, - Rory McIlroy
His ten year journey as a professional golfer has been as momentous off the course as it has on it.
McIlroy was always going to be popular. His style of play and engaging character make him a marketing dream. Add to that a phenomenal level of success and you have yourself a superstar.
Being that superstar meant McIlroy had to do most of his growing up, and make most of his mistakes, in public. The fact he made some big ones in the public eye and came through the other side make him all the more appealing. While McIlroy allows fans and media full access to him at golf tournaments and when he is generally in the public eye, he is protective of his privacy which he and his new wife Erica understandably covet. The fact that McIlroy gives so when he is ‘on duty’ means he is generally left to enjoy private times with his family and friends. He seems to have found a good balance between his public and private life.
The physical comparisons between Rory the rookie and McIlroy the four-time Major Champion are hilarious. The chubby cheeks are chiselled and the hair is cropped (and not short of a grey or two) as opposed to the strange afro-perm he had at the beginning. And the body shape has altered ever so slightly.
McIlroy is among the best physically conditioned players out there. He began taking more care of his body and diet not long after turning pro in a bid to protect his lower back from injuries, and became fascinated with sports science and how he could use it to improve his performance.
Now a finely-tuned athlete, McIlroy can look back on the first decade of his career with an incredible sense of achievement. He has amassed 22 worldwide victories as a professional, including four Majors and two World Golf Championships. He has been crowned Europe’s number one three times, winning the Race to Dubai three in 2012, 2014 and 2015 and won the FedEx Cup last year with a thrilling finish at the Tour Championship.
During his press conference on the eve of The Open back in July, McIlroy was being grilled on his loss of form after a run of missed cuts in an injury-filled 2017 season. In typically honest fashion he gave a quote which perfectly summed up his first decade as a professional.
“I'm still as ambitious now as I was starting off my career, if not more so now because I know what I've achieved and I know what I can achieve. So it only makes you want to do that even more. If you were to ask me at Carnoustie ten years ago, ‘okay, you're going to be sitting in your press conference in ten years' time at Birkdale, what would you like to have achieved?’ If someone told me, you're going to be a four-time Major winner and you won The Open, and you're one leg away from the career Grand Slam, you've played on three winning Ryder Cup teams, you've won the Race to Dubai three times in Europe, you've won the FedExCup in the States I'd be, like, yeah, I'll take that. That's pretty good!”