|Rory McIlroy celebrating his Australian Open win|
Rory McIlroy was already making waves when he appeared in the Irish Boys championship in the shadow of the historic and highly significant Hill of Tara some eight or nine years ago.
Even at 15, he was known across the world for his ability to make a golf ball do whatever he wanted it to do. He was already recognized as a latter day Tiger Woods, the European kid most likely to knock the Tiger off his perch.
Back then he was a skinny little thing with incredible dexterity or so it seemed to those of us following him around on a crisp day at the golf club known quite simply as Royal Tara.
McIlroy in action, even at that early age, was a sight that had to be seen when he was plying his trade so close to home and he didn’t disappoint.
I can’t remember if he won the competition, he probably did, but he certainly won many fans that day, this one included.
There was an athleticism to his swing and a grace to his movement that made him a golfer to admire.
There was also a power in his rotation that all but inspired jealousy in the handicap golfers watching him that day, ordinary golfers who just knew we could never imagine that sort of flexibility with club in hand.
The most impressive thing when Rory graced the Royal County course for those couple of days was his attitude. He was serious about the business of winning but he went around the course that day with an impish smile to match his swirling locks.
Just by looking at him, you could tell that Rory was happy within himself and happy, with his chosen path in life.
Somewhere along that path over the last 12 months, the smile left Rory’s face.
Ever since he won his two majors, golf has appeared, at times, to be a struggle for the young man from Holywood in the County Down.
You could see that when he walked off the course earlier this year. You could see it every time he was forced to answer questions about his well-publicized relationship with the tennis player Caroline Wozniacki.
You could see it as he struggled to adapt to his new clubs, paid for by Nike with one of the biggest endorsement checks in the history of sports, never mind golf.
And you definitely could see it as he tried to avoid questions about his fractious relationship with his Dublin based management company, Horizon, before they finally confirmed the parting of the ways in recent weeks – a confirmation soon followed by the inevitable legal case with the nitty gritty bickering to follow next year.
Life was simple for Rory McIlroy when life was just about golf and all about golf. Those of us in the role of spectators at Royal Tara all those years ago witnessed that at first hand.
It became complicated when money and managers, romance and rankings, expectations and demands entered the equation – as they always do with any sportsman or woman heading for the top of his or her chosen tree.
Amidst all the headlines, good and bad, and all the attention of the past 12 months, McIlroy tried very hard to do the one thing that has always been his forte – he tried to play golf.
It wasn’t easy under those circumstances if the results of the first 11 months of 2013 are anything to go by. But last Sunday it all changed.Last Sunday in Sydney, Rory McIlroy had the eye of the Tiger again.
As he went down the stretch at the Australian Open, neck and neck with hometown hero Adam Scott, the pep was back in McIlroy’s step.
Four behind going into the final round at the Sydney club that shares the Royal moniker with their friends many miles away in Tara, McIlroy was in no humor to once again give up his ambition to the trials and tribulations of recent times.
Only he knows why and only he knows where he dug the resolve from, but McIlroy was back to his best and back to doing what he does best in Sydney last Sunday – winning golf tournaments.
When he drained that birdie putt on the 72nd hole to pip Scott to the Aussie title by just one shot, a smile shot across McIlroy’s face. The smile returned after a year-long absence.
It was the exact same smile that had lit up Royal Tara many years previously.
And it was the smile that told us all to stop worrying about Rory McIlroy and his recent off course problems.
He has clearly come to terms with all of that in his own head and sorted out how to park his issues when he is where he belongs, at work on the golf course.
He may have waited over a year for a win but something tells me, now that the first victory of the Nike and self-management era is out of the way, he will be competing going down the stretch many times next year.
I’d probably go as far as to put money on Rory McIlroy right now to win a Major in 2014. That’s what the Australian win will do for him.
He looked a winner years ago at Royal Tara and he looked a winner again at Royal Sydney on Sunday.
And clearly, this royalty thing suits the young man. So read what you will into the fact that next year’s British Open is to be played at Royal Liverpool, otherwise known as Hoylake. What odds on a Royal Flush!
(Cathal Dervan is sports editor of the Irish Sun newspaper in Dublin)
GAA: The Mayo News managed to do what most other papers have failed to do and get the county’s football team manager James Horan to tell us something really interesting that we didn’t already know about one of the brightest brains in modern Gaelic football. So here goes with the amazing revelation from the paper’s interview with the Mayo boss – he gets a large number of letters from female fans aged between 50 and 70. Considering the bould James is only 42 himself, they must be in the market for a toy boy. And no, he can’t explain it either.
HURLING: It is probably accurate to say that most of the wives and girlfriends on the all-stars trip to Shanghai last weekend probably took it easy in China, but not Elaine Hogan, wife of the Kilkenny center-back Brian. She was up bright and early on Sunday morning to run in the Shanghai half marathon with around 20,000 other athletes. And she was back in the hotel by the time most of the tourists were getting up for breakfast. Now that’s dedication to your sport.
GAA: Time catches up with us all and a piece of GAA history died on Monday. Liam O’Connor, only 58, passed away after a long illness but he will be forever remembered as the man who supplied the pass for Seamus Darby to score the most dramatic goal ever in an All-Ireland final when Offaly stunned Kerry and denied Mick O’Dwyer’s men the historic five-in-a-row in 1982. Seamus dined out on that goal for many years; Liam’s memory will live long on it too.
SOCCER: Northern Ireland’s record goal scorer David Healy has announced his retirement from professional football at the age of 34 and after scoring 36 goals in 95 internationals. That’s an impressive tally for a player from the North, but it pales into insignificance next to Robbie Keane’s 62 goals in 131 caps for the Republic. So maybe we should all appreciate Robbie a bit more!
DIVING: Fair play to the young British Olympic diver Tom Daley, who openly admitted this week that he is in a relationship with a man and “couldn’t be happier.” The news has caused something of a stir across the Irish Sea, but Daley doesn’t sound too bothered by the reaction and nor should he be. After all, he is well used to diving in at the deep end!
HEROES OF THE WEEK
It has been some year for hurling, but even the suggestion in the Irish Times that the Mount Leinster Rangers win over Oulart-the-Ballagh in the Leinster club final was the greatest achievement of 2013 tells you exactly what it means. For a Carlow team to beat a Wexford team in any hurling match is something special. To do it in the senior provincial hurling final is just incredible. So well done to all concerned.
IDIOT OF THE WEEK
One former professional footballer has been arrested and charged along with three others on suspicion of match-fixing. One of the four has even claimed he is able to fix games involving Irish teams. The sooner FIFA and UEFA take real action against anyone responsible for fixing football matches, the better. It is a disease that threatens the very fabric of our beautiful game and it needs to be eradicated.