Fame, Golf and Relentless Squats: A Candid Chat With Rory McIlroy
Having met up with McIlroy at a fitness event in London, we chatted to the Northern Irish golf prodigy about success, the spotlight and the searing exposure that comes with it.
Photos supplied by Nike unless stated otherwise
It's Sunday morning. I've had about four hours sleep, and I'm still quite drunk. I check my emails to see the address of where I'm meeting Rory McIlroy and realise that I've skimmed over the part that says: "We will supply you with a full workout kit, but please bring your own kit in case we're missing anything." My heart drops. What does this mean? I'll tell you what it means; I'm in for one tough morning.
Two hours later and I'm standing in a roped off section of London's Third Space Gym next to one of the most successful sportsmen of his generation, getting berated by a personal trainer for not bending my knees properly when I'm picking up two dumbbells. How I've found myself in this situation, I have no idea. I've never even played golf, let alone been a member of a gym.
The workout goes on for a full hour, an hour of relentless squats, stretches, weights and at one point just chucking a massive ball to the floor (I don't know why either) as hard as possible. "Sorry pal" McIlroy mutters when he accidentally bumps into me whilst stretching. "No worries Rory, mate", I reply.
Just look at this photo of us post-workout. Look how ridiculously happy everyone else is. The guy standing behind Rory is holding onto him with a smile that says, "I'll never experience pleasure like this again". I on the other hand (far left) look like I've just returned from a war and I'm still trying to comprehend what I've seen.
If you're wondering what all this is for, McIlroy is in London to promote the Nike NTC app. The fitness app has been aimed at women since it launched a while back, but now they've gone duel gender with the help of a workout devised by Rory's coach. Though it might seem strange to have a golfer as a spokesperson for a fitness app (walking around a field occasionally hitting a ball with a stick requires you to be fit?), Rory explains that by following a strict training regime he was able to sort out a problem with his back, thus making him a better golfer. "It's also great for people who are just starting to learn more about exercise," he tells me. "Then one day you can gear yourself towards getting a gym membership or taking up a new sport."
Though my knowledge of golf is limited, I've always interested in the life of Rory McIlroy. He was your average kid that became obsessed with what many consider to be a fairly boring sport, he played every day, entered a few competitions, and then before he knew it he was the best golfer in the whole bloody world. And when you become the best in the world at anything, your life is going to change dramatically. Suddenly he was launched into the tabloid shitstorm that accompanies any A-list star, and his personal life was plastered all over the red tops.
Still panting, aching and feeling slightly delirious, McIlroy and I head off to a quiet room to have a chat. I ask him if a solid workout before meeting the press is a usual thing he does. "No, not really" he laughs. "This was just a one off. It was good though! I thought it went well."
It's easy to forget just how young McIlroy is. He seems to have been in the public eye for such a long time, but somehow he's only recently turned 27. "My parents were very supportive in anything I wanted to do, it wasn't as if they pushed me into being a golfer," he says, after I quiz him about how he's achieved so much at a young age. "I picked up the game at a very early age and they supported me as best they could. It helps that I've always loved golf, so I always had that drive and ambition. I also lived two minutes from my local course so I was always there. It's just the game I always took to more than anything else."
I feel I have to come clean with McIlroy and tell him just how much I know about golf, i.e. nothing. I tell him that the closest I've come to participating in the sport is smashing balls off a driving range on my brothers stag do and, to be honest, I've never really understood what I'd get out of it.
"You don't know what you'd get out it?" He laughs, "Um, well there's a great social element to it! If you have friends that play, you can get out on a course for a few hours. The great thing about golf, which is different to other sports, is that it doesn't matter what level you're at because of the handicap system. I could go out and play a round of golf with you, and we could still go out and have a good competitive game. And you know, in this day and age where everyone is just sat inside on their computers, golf is just a good reason to get outside and get some fresh air."
"Crazy golf!" I let out, without thinking about what I'm saying. "I used to play loads of crazy golf. Do you and your mates end up playing when you're on a lads holiday?"
"I find it funny when people go on holiday to play golf, because when I go on holiday I go to get away from it. It's a thing I do day in and day out, so there are times where I need to get away from it. But sure, I play crazy golf from time to time." "And you smash everyone easily, right?" I ask. "No, not really! It's a bit of a different game. There's more luck involved."
There comes a moment in any successful sports person's life where they have to go from admiring people in the sport to then competing against them. This kind of adjustment has always interested me, especially when it happens to someone as young as McIlroy and at such a fast rate.
"Yeah, it really was a bit of an adjustment." He admits, "When I was fairly young I started to play with Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia, and these are people I looked up to my whole life. At first I was completely in awe of them, because these were people I'd watched ever since I was young. It took me a while to actually believe and tell myself 'OK, I'm just as good, if not better, than these guys', and once I started to believe that I started to get over the awestruck factor."
"And you don't get star struck at all anymore?" I ask. "Not really, because the more famous people I meet, the more I realise they're just normal people that have been launched into this life. It wasn't them that created the aura around them, it's created by media."
The media that McIlroy speaks of is impossible to avoid when becoming famous at a young age. The only thing that tabloids enjoy more than a young sporting success story is a young celebrity messing up in some way. When McIlroy ended his relationship with his fiancé in 2014, he felt the full force of the notoriously invasive tabloid press. I ask him if it took long to get used to this aspect of being in the spotlight.
"Honestly I've tried to stay away from it as much as I can. You'll never even find me at a red carpet event. One of the reasons I don't spend much time in Ireland or the UK anymore is because of that tabloid culture. I live in Florida now, and I can walk down the street and do what ever I want and nobody cares. Not that I'm not well known there, they just don't have the invasiveness that we have here."
I ask him if his time in the UK consists of being permanently followed around by the paparazzi. "Sometimes yeah, it's hard to go and do things and just keep it to myself. I think that's the thing for me, I live a lot of my life in the public eye, and there's just a bit of my life that I want to keep to myself, and in that way it can be tough. But it's a good problem to have. If I wasn't in this situation, I wouldn't be playing as well as I am."
Though he seems to handle it well, you have to wonder whether becoming famous in the sport that he loves holds up to how he dreamt it would be, back when he was a kid on the golf course. "When I was a teenager and watching these guys on TV, you see them playing golf and lifting the trophy at the end of the week," he tells me. "But you don't see anything else they have to do, like the press and how they live. So I guess there was an adjustment period for me, but everything golf-wise? It's all I dreamed it would be, and more."
I leave the interview still clueless about golf, but with a better understanding of the life of a young sporting prodigy. The clichéd existence of a celebrity is something that comes with the territory of being exceptionally good at what you do, and the only thing you can do about that is embrace it. By the way, I also leave the interview with sore ribs and cramp.