Most people aren’t surprised when you tell them that golf legend Rory McIlroy’s father, Gerry, was a scratch golfer. He would take his toddler son to the driving range and sit him on the grass. As Gerry pounded ball after ball into the sky, Rory would sit still, mesmerized. When the father was done the son would reach for the club, wanting to hit too. Gerry would line him up and watch with delight as Rory took gentle swings that never connected.
A couple of years later Gerry gave Rory his first golf club. Legend has it that Rory never let it go. He slept with it at night and could be found most days hitting shots into the couch in the living room.
A rare talent
Very quickly Gerry could see Rory’s talent. But there weren’t many tournaments for golfers of Rory’s age. Only in America, Gerry was told. So the senior McIlroy picked up extra shifts wherever he could. Rory’s mother, Rosie, did her part by working the graveyard shift down at the local 3M plant. They passed one another in the morning, Rosie to shuffle Rory off to school, Gerry to clean toilets and tend bar. They rarely saw one another yet they were committed to seeing this through.
When the money was saved, Gerry and Rory flew to Florida when the young golfer was just nine years old. After winning his first world championship in Miami, famed golf coach Jim McLean watched Rory hit. It was important to have McLean’s opinion—Gerry needed validation. He needed to know that this wasn’t crazy. All this work and all this money being spent, Gerry knew it was leading to something greater. But he needed someone who knew golf to tell him that this dream wasn’t crazy. After seeing Rory strike a few balls, McLean turned to Gerry and said, “This kid is good…he has something.”
After the flight home Gerry sat down with Rosie and told her that the 90-hour workweeks would continue. If this is what it was going to take to give Rory a chance then this is what he would do.
There were days where father and son spent hours on the range before playing 18 holes. Gerry would be exhausted on his rare day off, ready to go home, only to see his son grab his clubs off the cart and head back to the range. Anytime Gerry would protest, Rory would look back and say “Don’t you want me to get better?”
It was hard to argue with Rory.
So Gerry didn’t. He believed that Rory held ownership of this dream, so he allowed his son to make his own decisions. This plan almost backfired when minutes after Rory won another amateur tournament, he told his dad he wanted to quit golf on the ride home. A stunned Gerry told his son he would support whatever decision he made. After cooling down for a few days Rory passed Gerry with clubs in hand headed out to practice. Gerry nodded. Not another word was said. Rory would never threaten to quit again.
The road to being a golf legend
It was 2010 before Rory turned the corner and became a legitimate superstar, narrowly missing the Open and the PGA Championship title that year. The following Spring, he led the Masters going into the final round only to card an 80 and watch his first true chance at a major disappear. Rory would later say that the Masters defeat was the only time he cried over golf.
At this point in his career, Rory had become a true golf legend. He had coaches and nutritionists and endorsement deals and didn’t need his father’s guidance on the golf course. This freed the two of them. Gerry flew to tournaments. He cheered and celebrated the triumphs as Rory began to pile up victories and comforted his son when it all fell apart at Augusta. On most weekends, as his son circled the world chasing stardom, Gerry would take care of Rory’s new estate back in Ireland. He would trim the grass and wash the cars. This was the only way Gerry knew how to love Rory: by giving and then giving some more.
Three months later at the U.S. Open at Congressional, Rory would walk down the 18th fairway with the tournament in hand. The victory would be his first major. As the cheers grew louder, golf legend Rory removed his hat and acknowledged the crowd. As he looked along the ropes he locked eyes with the one man who gave everything for him to get there. Rory’s eyes welled with tears. Gerry’s did too.
After the son knocked home his putt and the championship was secure, the father made his way to the green. Rory wrapped his arms around Gerry.
“Dad,” he said. “Happy Father’s Day.”
For Gerry, there could be no finer present.
See also: Masters 2017: Sergio Garcia’s Triumph