The images of some kid golfers remain indelibly etched in the memory bank.
Robert Allenby, a skinny youngster built like a one iron, meeting Greg Norman on the Royal Melbourne practice putting green in 1987 with his late mother Sylvia taking a photo and, likewise, Aaron Baddeley, a lock of hair hanging over his forehead, talking with the Shark on the putting green at Royal Adelaide in 1998 with more snaps a family album.
Then, there was a 17-year-old Rory McIlroy here at Royal Sydney – where the Emirates Australian Open starts tomorrow – at the 2006 Open. He was a slip of a lad with his curly long hair blowing in the wind. He was quietly spoken and courteous just like his dad Gerry who accompanied him on the trip our way.
And, he was virtually anonymous.
Now, obviously aged 26, and he is still quietly spoken and courteous, but now the golfing world knows all about the young man from Holywood, an eastern suburb of Belfast, who in March last year rose briefly to world No 1 and is a twice major champion.
He played in today’s pro-am – his first full round on the course since arriving at the weekend – and recalled several of the holes from his visit here in 2006, but not the whole box and dice of the course.
He also remembered playing with American Kevin Stadler – he thought in the first two rounds – but let’s gently remind him that was in the third round. Maybe it was because Stadler is almost the spitting image of his father Craig, a former US Masters Champion right down to his extended girth.
No, his two playing partners for the opening 36 holes were two young Australians – Jason King and Andrew Pitt – who remain in the golfing industry but not as touring professionals.
Pitt works at Melbourne’s Yarra Bend course as one of the club professionals while King is similarly gainfully employed here in Sydney at Moore Park.
King was in the Australian junior squad with the likes of Geoff Ogilvy and Brett Rumford and who also played against Adam Scottt, and today we caught up with him for his memories of the young McIlroy in 2006.
“He was just a down-to-earth young man and so quiet. He was just enjoying the experience. His short game was phenomenal and there was a lot of potential with his long game but he was so slender. He has obviously bulked up a bit in the gym since then,” King said.
“I didn’t think too much about how far he’d go in the game because there are so many young guys with talent in the world today, especially here in Australia.”
I asked a similar question of Queenslander Peter McWhinney on another young player on his first visit to Australia who also became a world No 1.
We’re talking, of course, of Tiger Woods who first played our Open in 1996 and was paired with McWhinney, who loves a chat in language most colorful.
Macca’s assessment of the young Woods – “I said to Pete Senior at one stage during the first round, ‘I don’t know mate, but this guy doesn’t impress me one bit.’ People were saying he’d win a major. No chance I thought.”
In 2006, McIlroy was still an amateur but the managers were circling and it was Englishman Chubby Chandler who had the inside running. Chandler’s Australian agent was player manager Tony Bouffler, whose stable includes Karrie Webb, John Senden, Allenby, Jarrod Lyle and a number of young players including Matt Griffin.
Bouffler persuaded Golf Australia to give McIlroy and his father accommodation for the week and he asked the then Royal Sydney Director of Golf and head professional Ron Luxton, who still has a teaching role at the club, to keep an eye on the young Northern Irishman.
“I went out and followed Rory for a few holes in a practice round and asked him afterwards if he wanted me to give him a lesson. He didn’t, and then I asked him who his coach was. He told me who it was and I said, ‘Don’t ever change him.’ I was so impressed with his swing,” Luxton said.
That coach was Michael Bannon, the club pro at Holywood,, who later moved to the Bangor club in Belfast. He is still McIlroy’s coach and earlier this year he departed Bangor to work full-time for McIlroy – when required – while still coaching any youngsters who call to ask his assistance.
Bannon still has a video of an eight-year-old McIlroy. While the camera remains on the kid, Bannon asks: “Did you play today?”
“What did you go round in?”
“86,” replies the excited high-pitched voice.
This year has been ordinary by the high standards he set in 2012, winning the PGA Championship and another three PGA Tour events. The theorists have put it down to his switch from Titleist to Nike, signing early this year for a $250 million 10-year deal.
Not so, says the young man.
“It’s funny. I started the year off with a bit of a swing flaw, I was taking it a bit too far on the way back, dropping it a little bit too far on the inside on the way down. I was a little bit inconsistent with my swing, and then spent a couple of months trying to get out of that,” McIlroy said today.
Those with far greater knowledge of the mechanics of the golf swing that I am – for the most complimentary thing folk say of my swing is that it is agricultural – will understand what he’s was talking about.
But, one can well understand when he says he lost confidence and that his short game came under pressure.
But, he had other things to talk of today, too.
It is a formidable challenge he faces to win his first tournament of the year, given the form of the Australians, especially our very first Masters champion Adam Scott who, this week, is trying to emulate Allenby as the only man to win our Triple Crown of golf.
“He (Scott) has won enough this year. I’d love to be in the mix on Sunday and at least give myself a chance to take it away from him, I guess … (and) obviously Jason Day coming off a great win last week,” McIlroy said.
“… I know I’m going to have to play my best golf to beat them.”
McIlroy is known as a lover of most sports, so one of the media pack asked if he’d been taking an interest in the Ashes cricket series, and maybe who he’d like to see.
“Anyone but England isn’t it?” he replied.
Goodness gracious. McIlroy is a Northern Irishman that is part of Britain, yet it might well have been a comment from someone south of the border who speaks with that similar lilting accent.
He spoke sympathetically of the plight of English batsman Stuart Trott who, just a few days ago, flew home with a stress-related illness, maybe because of the sledging from the Australian team in the First Test.
“I think the sledging this year has probably been a bit worse than other years as well. It looks like they’re having a go at each other after every ball. It would be tough, it would be really tough to take that for how ever long you’re out there for. They seem to really get at each other’s throat whenever they’re in there.
“It’s becoming more and more common these stress-related illness and it just goes to show how much a mental toll it takes on you sometimes,” a sympathetic McIlroy said.
Then, just to lighten up such a serious subject at the end of a quite superb and frank chat with the media, we asked if he and Woods, with whom he has become great friends, ever engage in a little sledging during practice rounds.
Golf might be a gentleman’s game but, in social play or a minor club comp, sledging is part and parcel of the fun.
“Yeah, I think there is. I think it’s a little more, obviously a little more,” he replied in answer to those less than serious rounds with Woods.
“And, it’s more humour, and a bit more banter. I think it’s a lot different when two people know each other pretty well. You can sort of get at one another and know that it’s a bit of fun.”
Could he give us his best sledge of Woods?
“No. (Maybe) after 9pm in the watershed (bar),” he said.
Maybe an altercation with a fire hydrant might be mentioned, but let’s not go there.