HOYLAKE, July 21- For those in the know from his earliest years in Holywood outside Belfast, it was just a matter of time before Rory McIlroy joined the ranks of golfing greats like Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus.
Like Woods, he was a child prodigy. Young McIlroy hit a 40-yard drive at the age of two and entertained visitors by repeatedly chipping balls from the end of his parents’ hallway into the drum of their washing machine. He was featured on TV.
His father Gerry and four of his Dad’s friends even bet £100 ($170, 125 euros) in 2005 at odds of 500/1 that the then 15-year old talent would become Open champion before he turned 26.
On Sunday at Hoylake, just over the sea from Northern Ireland, that crystal globe like foresight paid dividends as McIlroy romped away to win his first Open Championship.
In so doing he became just the third player in golfing history – after Nicklaus and Woods – to win three of golf’s four majors by the age of 25.
And all eyes will now be turned on Augusta National next April and the Masters where McIlroy will have the chance to become just the sixth player to win all four of the majors alongside Woods, Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.
Leading coach David Leadbetter believes it just a matter of how many more majors McIlroy will win.
“Rory’s a streaky player but if he can find that consistency level over the next few years he’s going to win a boatload of these majors. He’s only 25. He’s got a swing that’s going to last and that’s why he’s a little bit streaky,” he told the BBC.
Born in the small County Down coastal town of Holywood to an Ulster Catholic family, McIlroy’s parents, Gerry and Rosie, quickly recognized that he had a natural talent for the game of golf and they sacrificed time and money to help him realise his potential.
The results were immediate and their boy was crowned world junior champion at the age of 10 in San Diego and by the time he was 16 he was ranked the top amateur in the world.
But it was in 2007 that he first exploded onto the international stage with an eye-catching performance as an 18-year-old at the 2007 Carnoustie British Open.
Playing in cold, windy conditions on one of the toughest courses on the Open schedule, the tousel-haired youngster came in with a three-under 68, the only player not to shoot a bogey that day.
He eventually finished tied for 42nd, but won the silver medal rewarding the top amateur and shortly after that he turned pro.
McIlroy quickly made his mark.
Of medium build and not particulartly muscular, McIlroy possessed a purity of swing, allied to a bristling self-confidence that marked him out from the others.
He won his first European Tour event at the Dubai Desert Classic in 2009 which took him to 16th in the world rankings.
Mark O’Meara, who played with him on that occasion was moved to comment: “Ball-striking wise at 19, he’s probably better than Tiger was at 19. His technique, I think, is better
McIlroy also started to make his mark on the US PGA circuit and in May 2010 he recorded his first win on US soil by firing a final-round course record of 62 to take the Quail Hollow Championship.
But it was at the majors that he needed to shine most and with Tiger Woods at that time hobbled by injuries and a sex scandal, the sport was badly in need of a new superstar.
McIlroy looked the part but at a tender age he firstly made the headlines more for his collapses at the 2010 British Open at St Andrews and the 2012 Masters.
In the latter case, he led by four strokes entering the final round but endured a total meltdown in the full blaze of the media spotlight, limping home with an 80.
Rather then brood on that, McIlroy rebounded two months later to win the US Open by a whopping eight strokes. The following year he took the US PGA Championship by the same outlandish margin and he topped the world rankings.
McIlroy’s star suddenly faded in 2013 when he struggled with problems both on and off the golf course.
But a win in the Australian Open late in the year and then a very public split with tennis-playing girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki in May paved the way for the Irishman to once again produce his best golf.
What happened this week at Royal Liverpool proved that McIlroy is the true heir apparent to Woods as the world’s best golfer.
It remains to be seen just how many majors he can win in a competitive career that could last another 25 years.
Close friend and fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell says it should be worth keeping tabs on.
“I can just sort of sit back and admire how good Rory is and we’ll watch from there, really. But third leg of the Grand Slam at 25 years old, it’s pretty good,” he said.