Take last week’s British Masters, for example. As the four-time major winner and the event’s star attraction was leaving the 15th green in the third round, he spotted a young spectator and handed him his golf ball. The look on the kid’s face said it all in a tweet posted by his dad on social media with the accompanying caption “made our day”.
At his press conference ahead of today’s first round of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, McIlroy said that he’d been delighted to see how such a gesture made someone so happy, even though he does it frequently during rounds, before revealing his dislike for Keane as he recalled his own experiences of being a starry-eyed autograph/souvenir hunter.
“Yeah, I do,” replied McIlroy to being asked by The Scotsman about being that kid outside the ropes. “I remember going and watching the World Match Play at Wentworth every October, and getting golf balls from Mark O’Meara or Sam Torrance, and I remember how I felt when that happened.
“I was sort of surprised how that little moment last week became so big because it’s quite a regular occurrence on Tour.
“I mean, I must use between six and nine balls a round, and every time I need a new one, I look for a young kid in the crowd in between holes to give it to and walk to the next. So, it’s not anything out of the ordinary. And it’s not just me that does it; basically every golfer on Tour does it.
“But it just shows what such a small thing to me can mean to a kid, and that kid might be inspired to go and play. It’s a nice thing to be able to do. But I’ve had it go the other way, as well, where I’ve asked someone for an autograph as a kid and they didn’t give it to me and I’ve never liked them since.”
The question simply had to be asked. “Do you want to tell us who that was?” He could easily have kept that to himself, but one of the reasons McIlroy is so good for golf is that he’s as honest as the day is long. “Roy Keane, who should be one of my heroes due to the fact he’s a Man United player,” he replied. “I remember I went and asked for his autograph at the Portmarnock Links Hotel when he was with the Ireland squad and he said ‘no’. I’m sure he’s all right, but it sort of stuck with me ever since, I guess. So that’s why, if a kid asks me for an autograph, I always try to do it.”
Would he, having become one of the most recognisable sporting figures in the world, oblige Keane, pictured, an assistant manager to Martin O’Neill these days for the Republic of Ireland, if he asked him for an autograph? “Only if he gives me his,” said McIlroy, laughing.
Unfortunately, the majority of the autograph hunters at this week’s $5 million pro-am event at St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns are a lot older than the little lad at Close House and use the tournament to try to secure signatures for photographs that end up being sold on eBay. McIlroy is on their hit-list here for the first time since 2014, joining forces with his dad, Gerry, for his final outing of the year before taking a three-month break.
The 28-year-old heads into the event on the back of finishing second – his best performance since January – behind Paul Dunne in the British Masters. It took a 61 from Dunne in the final round last Sunday to hold off McIlroy as he posted a career-best weekend total of 127. On the strength of that, coupled with having finished third on his debut in this event a decade ago and ending up second on three occasions since then, he is feeling quietly confident about claiming a first win in 2017 at the final throw of the dice.
“Last week was probably the best I’ve played all year and, having not been here since 2014, it’s nice to be back and nice to be able to play a few rounds with my dad,” he said. “The Dunhill has always been a very enjoyable week. I’ve always seemed to play well here probably because of the relaxed atmosphere. I gave myself a decent chance last week, so it’s just good to know that there’s good stuff in there. But I’m not under pressure to win here. I’ve been looking forward to this week for a long time and hopefully I can end the year on a positive note.”
Next year, of course, sees a Ryder Cup in Paris and the Americans are heading into that in bullish mood after backing up a win at Hazeltine in the last contest with a thumping Presidents Cup victory last weekend. “They have a very young, very strong and hungry team,” noted McIlroy.
“They have got a lot of great players, which will make it even sweeter when we win in France.”