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Billy Connolly said it best. “Before you judge a man, you should first walk a mile in his shoes. After that, who cares? He’s a mile away and you’ve got his shoes.”

Glamorisation of theft aside, there’s a litte bit of truth in that, particularly as it relates to people we all think we know but, in reality, know precious little about. Celebrities, basically.

Take Rory McIlroy. A Google search of his name returns more than eight million pages in a split-second. From the latest headlines he has made, to videos of his swing, to profiles and portraits of his career, the four-time major champion is known to millions of golf fans around the world, from Belfast to Bangkok, from Armagh to Abuja.

Except known isn’t really the right word, is it? Familiar, sure. Recognisable, absolutely. But known implies an understanding or appreciation that extends far deeper than the superficial awareness most people actually have of him.

This week, he will travel to Augusta National in an attempt to finally win The Masters and, at the tenth time of asking, become only the sixth golfer in history to complete the career grand slam. If it ever happens, his legacy will be defined by events that occur by the Savannah River in Georgia. His story, however, begins by the banks of Belfast Lough and the sleepy parish of Holywood.

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Home to just over 12,000 people, there is more than a hint of North Berwick – and, to a slightly lesser degree, St Andrews – about Holywood. It’s affluent but not ostentatiously so. It’s wee without being small. It’s charming without being twee. And it’s clean. Spotlessly, almost disconcertingly clean. It’s not for nothing that it’s a six-time, and reigning, winner of Northern Ireland’s “Best Kept Medium Town” award, as the road sign at the top of Belfast Road proudly announces. (Peculiarly, it’s also a former winner of the “Best Kept Large Town” award but instinct suggests this might not be a point worth raising with the locals.)

As Belfast Road gives way to High Street, you find yourself in the town centre where a variety of winsome local businesses – like the Oscar & Joy gift shop and Lynchpin, a fully vegan restaurant – are sprinkled amongst the expected collection of charity shops. The local branch of Oxfam seems to be particularly good-humoured. A sign in the window declares that “clothes deserve a second chance, not your ex”, whilst another on the door advises that the shop is, indeed, open; they’ve just closed the door “coz it’s baltic”. The masonic hall around the corner, meantime, appears to be completely unaware that the pandemic is over, weather-faded social distancing measures still in situ outside its front door.

Modern architecture straddles old, with the bright pink Victorian walls of the Presbyterian Church little more than the flick of a wedge from the Yard Gallery, a contemporary, purpose-built art space comprising two galleries and a busy coffee shop frequented by Rory and his wife Erica whenever they’re in town.

Down by the crossroads, meanwhile, you’ll find the only original maypole left in Ireland. It is believed to date back to the 1700s, when a Dutch ship ran aground on the shore nearby. In appreciation of the help offered to them by the townsfolk, the ship’s crew planted the broken mast in the heart of the town.

That was then and this is now. It’s approaching lunchtime and, if he was here, locals insist you might find McIlroy in The Dirty Duck Alehouse, a quirky place that sits right on the waterfront, on the corner of Kinnegar Street and The Esplanade. The upstairs is occupied by the restaurant, with its incredible panoramic views of the Lough, down which the Titanic once (and only once) set sail. Outside, there’s a large, covered beer garden with its own bar, the brilliantly named ‘Quack Shack’. The downstairs of the pub, however, is where it’s at. It’s a cosy, traditional Irish boozer, with a roaring open fire. There’s a large choice of beers on tap, with space made in the past for a special Rory McIlroy Victory Ale.

There are all sorts of nooks and crannies to explore, including one little spot under the staircase called ‘Rory’s Corner’. Three signed pictures of himself hang from the wall: one, with the Dubai Desert Classic trophy following his maiden DP World Tour victory in 2008; another, with the Wanamaker following his PGA Championship victory at Kiawah Island in 2012; and the last, and biggest, a watercolour painting.

Everybody here knows Rory. Several actually know him know him. And then there’s Marcus, a pony-tailed bartender, who casually drops into conversation that he once caddied for him.

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“Yeah, it was back when Lough Erne Golf Resort was getting ready to open, so around about summer 2009,” he recalls. “I was just a boy and I was golf daft. Rory was signed up to be the resort’s touring professional, so he was playing some exhibition match or something like that.

“Anyway, I went along with my dad and, next thing I know, Rory asks me if I want to caddie for him for five holes. I wasn’t exactly going to say no, so off I went. If I remember rightly, he gave me 20 quid and two sleeves of Pro V1s as a thank you.”

Considering the affection in which McIlroy is held, it’s surprising – jarring, almost – that the town doesn’t have any kind of permanent tribute to him. There’s no statue, for example, nor do any of the many chip shops boast in their windows of being “Rory McIlroy’s Favourite Chippy” as is often the case with other celebrities in other towns.

With the exception of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to him at the bottom of a sign welcoming you to the town, you could walk every street in Holywood and not realise it is Rory McIlroy’s home. It’s not because they haven’t thought of it. Years ago, the prospect of a Hollywood-style ‘Walk of Fame’ in tribute to McIlroy was touted on social media, whilst the most appropriate way to celebrate him has been the subject of discussion at multiple Ards and North Down council meetings over the last decade.

The issue, or so it would appear, is that McIlroy doesn’t want the glorification. One individual at the golf club who didn’t want to be named but who claims to have known Rory and his parents for many years, said: “They’re not ‘showy’ people, you know? They’re very normal, very down to earth. Whenever Rory is here, he doesn’t like any fuss. He just wants to be treated like any other member. [His dad] Gerry is the same. If he’s in town, he’ll come up here and, if he’s not playing, he’s happy enough just going and hitting balls into one of the nets. Rory’s success hasn’t changed any of them, so, if anything, I think Rory would find it a bit embarrassing to have a statue or something like that.”

It’s also worth pointing out that McIlroy isn’t the first famous person to come from Holywood. Jamie Dornan, the star of 50 Shades of Grey, was born there almost seven years to the day before McIlroy. Former Irish rugby international Darren Cave also hails from the parish, as does Sky News anchor Dermot Murnaghan and Margaret Mountford, who fans of The Apprentice might recall was one of Alan Sugar’s advisors in early seasons of the hit BBC series. Van Morrison has a house in the hills high above the town, whilst blue ‘heritage plaques’ indicate the birthplaces of educationist Robert Sullivan and sculptor Rosamond Praeger.

All of which is to pay no regard to the rich, centuries-old history of the town itself. Ken Martin can tell you all about that and, if you have a spare hour or two, he will. The chairperson of Tour Guides NI, Ken is part of a a local ‘Walking for Health’ group that launched during the pandemic. Anybody is invited to meet up and take part in one of the regular, one-hour walks around the town. Today, Ken and two others are close to The Old Priory at the bottom end of High Street when they stop for a chat.

“What you need to understand is that Holywood was here long before Rory,” Ken explains. He reveals that the Priory tower, for example, dates from 1800 but that its oldest ruins can be traced back to the early 13th century. Turning to look back up High Street, he points in the direction of the maypole before spinning on a heel to gesture in the direction of an Anglo-Norman motte, where it’s thought King John stayed briefly whilst travelling from Carrickfergus to Downpatrick in the mid-1200s.

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If more recent history is your thing, the town has been home to many generations of some of Northern Ireland’s most influential families, the Kennedys of Cultra and the Harrisons of Holywood amongst them.

“So, there’s a lot more to this place than Rory McIlroy,” Ken adds. “But we’re awful proud of him. He’s done well for himself.”

That sentiment is shared by the schools McIlroy attended, St Patrick’s Primary and Sullivan Upper. Examples of the work he did whilst enrolled there still hang on the walls of the latter.

The gates to Sullivan are barely more than a five-minute walk from the front door of McIlroy’s childhood home. Situated on the corner of Belfast Road and Strathearn Court, it’s believed Rory and his parents swapped their modest ‘two up, two down’ terraced house on Church View on the other side of the High Street for the four-bedroom semi-detached villa when McIlroy was just a toddler.

It later became the home of Stephen Crooks, the one-time head pro at Holywood Golf Club, before being snapped up by Aaron and Naomi Williamson around six years ago. The couple now live there with their two young children and pet Shorkie – a cross between a Shih Tzu and Yorkshire Terrier – but evidence of its high-profile former resident remains.

The plaque displaying the house number is embellished with a golf ball on a tee, whilst the garden that wraps around the building has an outdoor putting green, complete with six different holes, each with its own flag. There’s a trampoline at the bottom and various kids’ toys scattered around but it’s still in surprisingly good condition.

“We’d like to repair it and get it back up to scratch but it would cost an awful lot of money,” Aaron explains. “The cheapest thing would be to replace it with real grass but we don’t necessarily want to do that given the history of it and who had it before us. I sometimes wonder how many putts Rory has made on it or how many times he’s said to himself, ‘This one to win The Open’ or ‘This one to win the Masters’. Yeah, it’s definitely pretty cool.”

A pastor at Holywood Baptist Church around 100 yards down the road, Aaron likes golf but stops short of describing himself as a golfer. Both he and Naomi knew all about their home’s former occupant when they were looking to buy it.

“It was slightly off-putting, if I’m honest,” he admits. “Not because we don’t like him or anything. We think he’s great. It was more that you felt like you were going to be the custodians of something important. It definitely made us wonder if we were the right people for it.”

Since they moved in, the Williamsons have not yet had a visit from McIlroy – “It would be lovely if he did ever pop by,” says Naomi, “he’s welcome any time” – but they’ve seen plenty of taxis and tour buses pull up outside and have occasionally spotted people popping their heads over the fence for a gawk at Rory’s old garden.

Then there was the time their washing machine went on the blink.

“I remember the guy who came to fix it being really excited at the idea he was fixing the same washing machine that Rory used to chip balls into,” Aaron laughs. “I don’t know if it is or not but it’s possible, I suppose.”

Despite their initial misgivings about moving into such a significant property – it even featured in an old Nike advert – the couple have since embraced their home’s history.

“We hosted a men’s night for guys from the church not long after we first moved in where we had a little tournament out on the putting green, which was great fun,” Aaron adds. “Eventually, we’d love to convert the garage into a little self-contained apartment that we could have as an Airbnb. ‘Come and stay in Rory’s old house!’ That sort of thing. It’s getting the capital to do it in the first place, but we’ll see.”

Which brings us to Rory’s ‘other home’ in the town – Holywood Golf Club. Follow Jackson’s Road onto Demesne Road and you’ll quickly arrive at the foot of Nun’s Walk, the club’s de facto driveaway. A small, simple stone sign marks the entrance. Again, it’s striking that there’s no mention of McIlroy on the approach to the club. The only indication that he has anything to do with the place – outside the clubhouse, that is – comes courtesy of a space reserved for him in the car park.

Despite the cold, dank, early-February conditions, the course is busy. “We swap the nines around during the winter,” explains a bearded gentleman who introduces himself as Derek. “The normal back nine is on the higher part of the ground so, in the winter, when it’s wetter, the water tends to run down onto the front. So, we flip the nines around.”

A member of the club for the last 20 of its 120 years, Derek has seen Rory here countless times. “He can pretty much drive every green in one,” he laughs. He gestures in the direction of one of the tees. “That’s the 17th. I remember being on the green away up there in the distance one time and he was back on the tee. His tee shot landed just short of the green. That must have been a good 15 years or so ago.”

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If the course is really that short for him, it makes you wonder what McIlroy gets from playing it. “Well, it’s home, isn’t it?” Derek shrugs.

Peter McMillen has been a member for more than 50 years. A regular playing partner of Rory’s uncle, Colm, in the Wednesday sweep, he knew McIlroy’s grandfather, Jimmy. “He would have been super proud of him,” he says. “I remember my wife and I played with Rory years ago when his golf bag was bouncing off his calves. He hit driver from everywhere. Off the tee, off the fairway – every chance he got, he’d pull off the headcover. His coach Michael Bannon once said that he was a God-given talent and, let me assure you, he’s right.”

Peter recalls being a spectator on the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush for the North of Ireland Golf Championship when a teenage McIlroy was one of several Holywood players in the field. “I was actually following Michael Eden and Harry Diamond,” he says. “I remember they said to me, ‘What are you doing watching us? Go watch Rory instead.’ So, I caught up with them at about the fourth and what I saw, my goodness. He had seven putts on the back nine. Seven!” In the end, McIlroy signed for a 61.

“He got a text message from Darren Clarke afterwards asking how he got on,” Peter adds. “Rory wrote back, ‘Shot a 61.’ Clarke goes, ‘That must be a new course record for the Valley’, which is the small course at Portrush. ‘No,’ replies Rory. ‘61 on the Dunluce.’ You can imagine the first word Clarke came back with and, if you can’t, you’ll be able to get it from the second one being ‘off’. He was some boy then and he’s some boy now.

“You know, people talk about him needing to win the Masters and all that. It would be very special if he did it but, honestly, I don’t think he needs it as much as some folk think. What he’s achieved so far in his career is unbelievable. Really incredible.”

A snapshot of McIlroy’s achievements is on display at the top of the stairs in the clubhouse. A glass cabinet contains replicas of his US Open trophy, the Wanamaker Trophy, a scaled-down version of the Claret Jug, and several other priceless pieces of memorabilia.

His bags from the 2010, 2012 and 2014 Ryder Cups are on display, as is a selection of the equipment he has used down the years. Aside from the official display, there’s a framed picture of McIlroy and his scorecards from his US Open win in 2011 next to one of the bars, a signed Augusta flag from his Masters debut in 2009 in a separate members-only area, and a framed display of his scorecards from the 2007 Open at Carnoustie where McIlroy won the Silver Medal for low amateur. That hangs from the wall just out of view in the back of the pro shop.

Michael O’Hara, one of the resident pros, points out a particularly unusual item on the shop floor. “Do you see that bag there?” he says, gesturing to a staff bag full of Titleist Vokey SM9 wedges. Two for £250, a saving of £88. But Michael isn’t fishing for a sale. “That’s one of Tiger’s old bags,” he adds. Sure enough, it is. The unmistakable ‘TW’ logo sits above the 15-time major champion’s name on the front of the bag, with a huge, lime green Muscle Pharma logo down the side. Woods was an ambassador for the brand between 2014 and 2016. Apparently, McIlroy showed up with the bag one day and casually gifted it to the staff in the shop.

“If you wait a couple of minutes, Rory will be come and show you around the clubhouse,” Michael says. “Well, not that Rory, obviously!”

Rory Casey, the assistant director of golf operations at Holywood, takes up the tour. “It’s hard to be awe-struck,” he says of his namesake. “He doesn’t behave like a big star at all. He never looks for special treatment. He’s just totally normal.”

McIlroy’s affection for his boyhood club prompted him to donate a million pounds towards renovation work several years ago. The results are legitimately spectacular. A clubhouse extension includes a state-of-the-art gym, as well as a phenomenal indoor teaching facility, kitted out with four HD golf simulators, multiple Trackman systems, and so much more.

“The gym is probably his favourite place in the clubhouse,” the other Rory adds. “It’s almost like his safe space.”

In much the same way as McIlroy is not the only famous person from Holywood, nor is the first successful golfer the club has produced. The walls feature images of two-time Ulster Youths champion, Philip Collins, former Ulster Girls’ champion Vicky McWilliams, Ulster Boys’ U18 champion Harry Diamond (now McIlroy’s caddie, of course), Irish international Rory Williamson, and Tom McKibbin, who has followed McIlroy onto the DP World Tour.

“We’ve done pretty well over the years,” Rory smiles.

With that, it’s time to leave Holywood and head back into Belfast where, again, McIlroy’s footprint can be found. Examples might not be as rich in supply as they are in his hometown – you’re more likely to find generous nods to the part the city played in the launch of the Titanic and hit TV show Game of Thrones – but they’re there if you care to look. On Damascus Street in the Queen’s Quarter, for example, a giant mural of him has been painted onto the side of one of the houses. Installed by local artist Danny Devenney in the summer of 2012, it bears the effects of a decade-plus of weather and wear but is still hugely impressive.

Then there are some of McIlroy’s favourite haunts. He and several friends partied in Ollie’s, a trendy nightclub in the vibrant Cathedral Quarter, after he won the Open in 2014. A few minutes away, in the award-winning Munch restaurant on Church Lane, diners can order a ‘Rory McIlroy’, a chicken burger with lettuce and mayo. “No reason for it,” explains the chef. “I just picked a few famous Irish names at random and put them on the menu. Rory’s one of the most famous so on he went.” Also featured are Liam Neeson, George Best, and that iconic Northern Irish footballer Diego Maradona.

In some ways, it feels like both Holywood and Belfast could make more of McIlroy but you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s beyond impressive that a golfer – any golfer – gets as much attention as he does.

For all that he is a four-time major champion, former world No.1 and one of the most immediately identifiable people in his sport, he is, first and foremost, a ‘local boy made good’, ‘one of our own’, ‘some man for one man’.

It’s true what they say, you know. There’s no place like home.

This feature first appeared in the April 2024 edition of bunkered (issue 210). Get more like this by taking out a subscription. Click here for details.

author headshot

Michael McEwan is the Deputy Editor of bunkered and has been part of the team since 2004. In that time, he has interviewed almost every major figure within the sport, from Jack Nicklaus, to Rory McIlroy, to Donald Trump. The host of the multi award-winning bunkered Podcast and a member of Balfron Golfing Society, Michael is the author of three books and is the 2023 PPA Scotland 'Writer of the Year' and 'Columnist of the Year'. Dislikes white belts, yellow balls and iron headcovers. Likes being drawn out of the media ballot to play Augusta National.

Deputy Editor

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