If you saw him at Carnoustie 12 months ago, you'll surely recall Rory McIlroy. The toothy grin. The tousled mop of dark hair above a forehead unlined by the game he has found so easy since he was 2, when he first smacked a "monster" 40-yard drive. The smooth, rhythmic and fearless swish through impact. All were there to see during an Open Championship won by one Irishman but lit up by another.
For it was the Belfast boy, then 18, who looked 14 and played like a veteran who charmed the galleries; first with an opening 68 -- the only bogey-free round of the day -- then with a closing birdie hailed long and loudly by the packed grandstands surrounding the 72nd hole, all as a prelude to making off with the Silver Medal awarded to the leading amateur. Later that summer McIlroy played in the Walker Cup, turned pro and, in only his first two tournaments, earned enough prize money to guarantee his European tour card for the 2008 season. His game, swing and personality have the spark of genius not seen in Europe since the emergence of Sergio Garcia a decade ago.
"Rory is a super lad," says Open champion Padraig Harrington. "He really does have a very good attitude. He's confident, but nice about it. There's a good balance there. He's a guy who is going to get better and experience bigger things. I don't think there are too many golfers who wouldn't like to be where Rory McIlroy is."
Today McIlroy is at the modest Holywood course on the outskirts of Belfast, where he grew up, where he is most at home, and where his father was the bar manager. The lounge and bar are virtual shrines to the local superstar. In one corner, his four scorecards from Carnoustie are framed alongside a signed flag and photograph. Nearby are other cards, one detailing the outrageous 61 (net 65) McIlroy shot at Royal Portrush, one of the world's most demanding courses, during the 2005 North of Ireland Championship. On another wall is a picture of an even more youthful Rory, holding the world 8-9 championship trophy he won at Doral in Florida. Alongside it is a greeting card, clearly inscribed by that same 9-year-old, thanking the Holywood members for all their kindness, help and support. There are many other photographs, too, reflecting an outstanding amateur career.
"I'm used to interviews," McIlroy says in a quiet corner of the clubhouse on a Wednesday morning in March. "Ask me anything." The charm and energy McIlroy displayed at Carnoustie is still evident in his restless demeanor. He has an edge, however. During the Walker Cup at Royal County Down, about 30 miles from the family home he has only recently abandoned for a new five-bedroom villa nearby, McIlroy was annoyed at what he considered repeated displays of "bad manners" and "ignorance toward the spectators." As a result, he turned on American Billy Horschel when the pair met on the final day.
"I was up against Horschel on the first day, too," he smiles. "I messed up the last hole and lost to him. I wasn't happy. Then I got him again, twice, on the Sunday. His antics were really p----- me off. For example, he had hit a bunker shot at the 14th in our morning foursome. It was a great shot and finished inches from the cup. But he came running down the hill hollering at the top of his voice. He was so loud and so obnoxious.
"Anyway, that outburst of his was probably the worst thing he could have done. In the second singles, I set out to be as loud as he was. On the first tee I ripped a drive up the middle, hit my 7-iron approach to maybe 15 feet -- I was shouting 'Be good! Be good!' all the way -- and holed the putt for an eagle. When the ball went in, I gave it the loudest 'Come on!' you've ever heard. I think he got the point."
One day after seeing off Horschel on County Down's 16th green, McIlroy was a professional. And within a month he had a tie for 42nd in his debut at the British Masters, a solo third in the Dunhill Links Championship, a tie for fourth in the Madrid Open and a less-notable share of 56th place in the Portugal Masters.
"Third in the Dunhill was unbelievable, really," he says. "Then I went straight to Madrid -- after getting the invitation on the Sunday evening -- and finished fourth. So it all happened very quickly and, to be honest, seemed very easy. But I was simply playing well at the time. In fact, after 10 holes of the last round at the Dunhill I was thinking about winning the thing, never mind getting my tour card."