He looks like a character straight from the set of the next Scooby Doo movie. He stands barely taller than your average Cheltenham jockey. He carries himself with the careless demeanor of a carefree teenager.
He is all that and more, so much more. He is Rory McIlroy, native of Bangor, Co. Down, the great Irish hope in world golf, the young man who those in the know have already said is going to be the Celtic Tiger to eclipse golf’s first Tiger.
The concept of life as a first amongst equals holds no fears for McIlroy, nor should it. He is already rated among the top players in world golf.
He is already being talked about as the young man most likely to assume the role of world number one when time finally catches up with the great Tiger Woods.
That he carries the burden of expectancy as easily as most teenagers carry a mobile phone says much about McIlroy and more about his levels of confidence, both the self-perpetrated confidence and that generated by those who have been touched and impressed by his genius in recent times.
That he is just 19 and on the verge of greatness tells you all you need to know about Irish golf’s latest superstar, the Irish nation’s latest sporting hero.
Just two weeks ago he was on the verge of a showdown with Tiger himself at the WGC Accenture Matchplay championships in Arizona. McIlroy kept his side of the deal when he defeated the much heralded Hunter Mahan, only for Woods to fall on the sword carried by South African Tim Clark.
McIlroy then achieved what Woods had failed to do and defeated Clark, only to lose to the eventual champion Geoff Ogilvy of Australia in the quarterfinals.
“I guess I showed that I can compete with the best players in the world in Arizona but to be honest, I already knew that myself,” said McIlroy, officially in the Top 20 bracket in the latest world rankings.
To those who have followed McIlroy in recent years, his efforts in the Tuscon desert will have come as no surprise. Born to golf — he could hit a drive 40 yards when he was only two years of age — McIlroy has long been the Irish game’s superstar in waiting.
Nurtured by the great Darren Clarke since the age of nine, when they first met on the famous links at Portrush, this is a young man born to greatness.
American golf legend Mark O’Meara, who played with him in Dubai, has already claimed that McIlroy is better than Tiger at the same age. Ernie Els reckons McIlroy will be the world number one in the short rather than the long term.
Yet still the impact McIlroy has made in only his second season as a pro has been something phenomenal. He became the sixth youngest winner ever on the European Tour when he triumphed at the Dubai Masters a month or so ago, and next month he will look to make some Masters history on his Augusta debut.
Woods, the youngest ever winner at 21 years, three months and 14 days in 1997, had to wait until his third visit to the Magnolias for his first green jacket, while the average Masters champion has played Augusta six times before winning.
Little wonder then that the golf world awaits the moment when McIlroy tames the Tiger and assumes the mantle as his chosen sport’s number one.
“It would be great to get that accolade one day but I am just trying to play my golf, keep improving and see where it gets me,” said McIlroy when he recently celebrated his Dubai success at the Bangor club he grew up in.
“It’s obviously a huge compliment to be spoken about in the same breath as Tiger, probably the highest compliment I could be paid. Just to be compared to Tiger is mind blowing.
“I just want to try to keep getting better. If I can just keep doing what I’m doing and playing well then hopefully a few years down the line I might be able to compete with him.
“Tiger has been the best in the world for the last 10 years and I see no reason why he won’t be for another few years. I just want to try and get in the Top 10 in the world and see how it goes from there.”
A noted golf addict, McIlroy once begged his parents to buy him a replica of Tiger’s first winning Augusta card in a memorabilia shop on a visit to America some years ago.
He also counts flags signed by the likes of Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie and a ball used by O’Meara in his souvenir collection back home in Ulster, but Tiger is the one he will always be judged against, the one he will always want to rate himself by.
“I’ll be the first to say if I stood on the first tee with Tiger I would be intimidated because he has been a hero of mine for the past I don’t know how many years,” McIlroy added.
“I had a poster of him on my wall when I was a kid. I had a replica of his scorecard after the 1997 Masters, the final round. Obviously any new kid that comes out is going to be compared to Tiger because he has been the best for the last 10 or 15 years, and he might be the greatest golfer of all time by the time he finishes.