(CNN)Rory McIlroy and his caddie Harry Diamond used to have a bet with each other during practice rounds.
They’d set a score for McIlroy to shoot and if he beat it, Diamond bought him dinner. If McIlroy fell short, the tab was on him. More than just for kicks, it helped focus the practice.
But on the Sunday evening of the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club in February, McIlroy laid on drinks for Diamond, his caddie since 2017, to celebrate his rise back to the world No.1 spot for the first time since 2015. It’s a closeness borne out of their junior golf days back in Northern Ireland.
“It was important for me to sit down and have a few drinks with him and be like, we’ve done this, this was our journey and we did it, two guys that grew up in Holywood, playing golf together, this is something that was really cool,” McIlroy said.
Along with Dustin Johnson, McIlroy now sits behind only Tiger Woods and Greg Norman for most cumulative weeks at No.1 with more than 100. He knows Woods’ record 683 weeks is unlikely to be matched any time soon. “It was insane,” admits McIlroy.
But there is one Woods landmark McIlroy can emulate at the Masters, which was postponed until November because of the coronavirus pandemic.
A first green jacket at Augusta would make the 31-year-old only the sixth player to achieve the career grand slam of all four major titles. He would join golfing greats Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods in an elite pantheon.
McIlroy has faced grand slam talk before, of course. Since he won the Open in 2014, the Masters has become his holy grail. But with it has come mounting pressure, expectation and heartache.
“I get it every April and it certainly doesn’t help things,” said McIlroy, who has had four top 10s at Augusta National Golf Club in that time but was tied 21st behind Woods’ remarkable return last year.
‘Opened my eyes’
McIlroy won his four majors in a blistering burst from 2011 to 2014, but since then the well has dried up despite plenty of prestigious PGA Tour wins.
In South Korea in October, 2019, then No.1 Brooks Koepka — who also raced to four major wins very quickly between 2017 and 2019 — was asked about his rivalry with McIlroy.
“I’ve been out here for what, five years? Rory hasn’t won a major since I’ve been on the PGA Tour. So I don’t view it as a rivalry,” he said.
McIlroy agreed Koepka “wasn’t wrong” but stopped short of retaliating further.
But it’s McIlroy’s consistency which took him past Koepka back to the top of the world. Four wins in 2019 and nothing worse than fifth place on the PGA Tour in six starts since October tipped the scales back his way.
His return to form coincided — even was influenced by — an inner perspective forged from mindfulness practices and the pages of self-help books.
At the Masters last year, McIlroy revealed his routine now includes meditation, juggling and reading.
His favorite books include “The Greatest Salesman in the World,” by Og Mandino, Ryan Holliday’s “Ego is the Enemy” and “The Obstacle is the Way,” and Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k.”
“It’s opened my eyes to approaching life in a certain way which I think is a positive,” he told the PGA Tour’s The Cut.
“There’s things you can take from it which you can put into your career but you can also put into your life, taking a step back to think about things logically.”
Critics suggest he should have converted more of his high finishes into wins, and McIlroy concedes there are “good top 5s and bad top 5s.”
But he added: “My win percentage on Tour is like 10% and I think that’s pretty high for anyone not being Tiger Woods.”
Another McIlroy trait has been the occasional blowout round, such as his infamous meltdown from four in front in the final round of the 2011 Masters, or his capitulation alongside Patrick Reed in the final round at Augusta in 2018.
“He is a bit mercurial but that’s part of his normality,” says Shane O’Donoghue, host of CNN’s Living Golf show. “He’s not a robot, he is an artist.
“He will have down times, he will have the odd disaster, but my god, the highs more than make up for it because when he is on, he’s different class.”
The drama of last year’s Open at Royal Portrush perfectly encapsulates McIlroy’s multiple sides. As the hot and sentimental favorite to win on the tournament’s first return to his native Northern Ireland since 1951, he was gripped with nerves on the first tee.
“That was the first time I felt it, ‘Jesus, this is huge.’ I was overwhelmed,” he told the Irish Independent. “I was overwhelmed by the support. I looked up and just thought, ‘Holy s**t!'”
He pulled his tee shot out of bounds and amassed a quadruple-bogey eight on his way to a 79. In danger of missing the cut, he launched a swashbuckling attack in the second round, urged on by legions of fans, but his 65 left him one short.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way for the prodigy who had set a course record of 61as a 16-year-old at Royal Portrush.
It was supposed to be the coronation of the boy king who had learned the game from his father Gerry at the unassuming Holywood Golf Club, a couple of hours down the road near Belfast.
The young McIlroy was transfixed by Woods’ breakthrough major at Augusta in 1997, and when he was nine he wrote to the American, saying he was gunning for him.
His victory in the world Under-10 championship in Florida led to an appearance on a popular TV talk show, demonstrating his prowess chipping golf balls into a washing machine.
“I’d heard the stories of him playing for Holywood Golf Club, walking onto the first tee to play a senior cup match for low handicap amateurs, and his opponents saying, ‘Who are you caddying for today?’ and he’d go, ‘No, no, I’m playing,'” said BBC Sport Northern Ireland TV presenter Stephen Watson.
Irishman O’Donoghue was equally stunned when he first saw McIlroy in action in 2004.
“He’d just turned 14 and was clearly very different,” O’Donoghue told CNN Sport. “He looked like a cherubic little boy but played with an exuberance that was totally different. It was like watching a virtuoso. I very quickly christened him ‘Ireland’s Mozart,’ in golf terms.”
A true Holywood star
Though McIlroy was well known on the amateur circuit, he came to wider prominence as a chirpy, cherubic 18-year-old at the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie, where he tied for third after the first round, bettering the then 12-time major champion Woods by one shot.
Joining the paid ranks was like adding a spark to rocket fuel. McIlroy has grown from precocious talent into a global superstar, based in Florida with the huge mansion, fast cars and private jet.
But despite the fame, wealth and celebrity status, McIlroy is still very grounded with a close coterie of school friends. When he parted company with long-time caddie JP Fitzgerald in 2017, McIlroy turned to best mate Diamond to shoulder the bag.
He’s had the same coach, former Holywood pro Michael Bannon, since he began the game using cut-down clubs.
“He was a nice, normal kid. He hasn’t changed,” adds O’Donoghue. “Circumstances have changed phenomenally around him and he’s had to deal with all of that but he’s still the same Rory. At the heart of it he’s still Gerry and Rosie’s boy.”
Part of that personality is an honesty and openness in interviews. It’s got him into hot water at times, but it’s also endeared him to fans and media alike.
McIlroy’s latest pronouncements on a proposed splinter tour called the Premier Golf League and Tour-wide testing for Covid-19, has earned him plaudits as a leader and statesman.
“I’ve been around the top of the game for a long time now, over a decade, and I think being at the age I am and being at the stage of life where I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin and in my own beliefs and values and convictions,” he said.
“I have been outspoken about a number of issues in golf over the past couple years, and I’m happy about that.”
With golf tournaments returning from the enforced coronavirus break without fans, he was one of the players advocating against a fan-less Ryder Cup, saying the iconic Europe vs. US competition with no supporters is “not a Ryder Cup.”
The Ryder Cup was eventually postponed and will be played between September 29 to October 1 at Italy’s Marco Simone Golf & Country Club in 2023.
A career grand slam would confirm McIlroy as one of the game’s greats, a true Holywood star.
In the lead up to the Masters, he revealed he had been “experimenting” with adding some more speed to his game in response to what Bryson DeChambeau has achieved after totally revamping his game.
“Bryson, when he speed-trains, he just hits the ball into a net, so he doesn’t really know where it’s going,” McIlroy said. “He’s just trying to move as fast as he can … and sort of making the target irrelevant for the time being and then you can sort of try to bring it in from there.
“From what I’ve done and what I’ve been trying — you know, sort of experimenting with the last couple weeks — it’s the fastest I’ve ever moved the club, the fastest my body has ever moved.”
If McIlroy does win the Masters this year he would be helped into the green jacket by none other than Woods, tying up a neat narrative that sparked his phenomenal career.
“I’ve done a lot of great things in golf so it’s just a matter of doing it on the right weeks,” he told Watson for BBC Sport.
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