Tait: It was a matter of time for McIlroy

Rory McIlroy holds up the trophy on Sunday at the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Rory McIlroy holds up the trophy on Sunday at the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

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I wasn’t entirely convinced Rory McIlroy would become World No. 1 the first time I saw him play. First impressions can be deceiving.

I watched McIlroy lose in the first round of the 2005 British Boys Championship at Royal Liverpool to unheralded English player Graham Benson. McIlroy was 15 at the time, and I figured maybe the hype surrounding him was overblown.

It wasn’t.

I knew all about McIlroy before I saw him play. Anyone interested in amateur golf on this side of the pond knew his story. After all, he was hitting 40-yard drives when he was only 2. At 8, he became the youngest full member of Holywood Golf Club, five miles east of Belfast, Northern Ireland. At 9, he won the Under 10 World Championship at Doral. At 11, he shot level par around Holywood’s par-69 layout. Two years later, his handicap was down to scratch.

He played in his first professional event, the 2005 British Masters, at age 15. He won both the West of Ireland and the Irish Amateur Close Championships that year, and smashed the course record at Royal Portrush with an 11-under 61 in the North of Ireland Amateur.

Yet I wondered after his loss to Benson if maybe McIlroy was going to be another kid with lots of talent who wasn’t going to fulfill it. I’ve been around long enough to see many so-called “can’t miss” kids fail to make it.

Of course, it was easy to be impressed by McIlroy’s swing even when he was 15. It was so good that Scottish golf coach Bob Torrance refused to touch it. McIlroy asked Torrance for lessons. Torrance watched him hit 10 balls and said there was no point; Torrance couldn’t improve on something he thought was close to perfect.

Perfect is just what McIlroy has become with his Honda Classic victory.

I soon realized he had the potential to be a future World No. 1 the more I watched him in amateur golf. It soon became evident he was a class apart.

He proved that when he won the silver medal as leading amateur in the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie. He announced himself to the wider world with his flawless opening 68. Soon the world’s top professionals were raving about the young Northern Irish phenomenon. He didn’t disappoint. McIlroy’s rise up the world pecking order has been rapid.

Ian Poulter pronounced McIlroy as different class the first time the Englishman played with him.

“He’s got an extra gear most of us don’t have,” Poulter said. “He can find an extra 25 yards when he needs it. That’s a huge asset to have.”

If McIlroy had a “flaw,” it might have been with his putting. I watched him three-putt the final green in the 2007 Lytham Trophy to lose to Scotland’s Lloyd Saltman. McIlroy did the same on Royal County Down’s 18th green to lose to Billy Horschel in the 2007 Walker Cup.

Yet the most impressive aspect about the victory that took him to the top of the world order was the number of clutch putts he holed. He made three long putts for par - at the second, fifth and seventh holes - that was reminiscent of one Tiger Woods in his prime.

The difference between Woods as No. 1 and McIlroy at No. 1 is that it’s doubtful if it will change the Northern Irishman the way it changed Woods.

McIlroy’s most endearing quality is that he hasn’t changed much since his amateur days. He is just as friendly and approachable now as he was when hardly anyone had heard of him. The same can’t be said for Woods. McIlroy still says hello to me, still stops to chat just as he always did.

He can thank his father Gerry, mother Rosie and working-class Holywood Golf Club for keeping him well grounded. Gerry took on two extra jobs besides his role as bar manager at Holywood Golf Club to help finance his son through amateur golf. So Rory wasn’t born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. He knows how lucky he is to be playing golf for a living.

“He’s a really nice, down-to-earth kid with both feet planted firmly on the ground,” veteran English professional Gary Wolstenholme said when McIlroy was still in the amateur game.

He’s now planted firmly at the top of the world order, already has his first major, last year’s U.S. Open, and has a seemingly limitless future. Few doubt he will pick up many more major trophies.

“Golf is a bit like an exam paper,” McIlroy once said. “I like the fact that each day asks different questions of you.”

Rory McIlroy has all the right answers now.

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