The 750,000 reasons that prove McIlroy never forgot his roots
Rory’s Corner doesn’t adequately describe the shrine that honours the achievements of Holywood’s most famous son.
In parts it’s like a parent’s scrapbook – clubhouse walls showcasing picture after picture of a schoolboy holding trophies. In hindsight, they are the stepping stones of an inexorable rise to greatness.
The trophy cabinet looks, at first glance, like the glass showcase you’d find at any club. Until you peer a little closer and discover it is the US Open trophy staring back at you.
Then there’s the massive, unwieldy, Wanamaker Trophy that signals PGA Championship glory and, yes, that is a replica of the Claret Jug too.
“They do bring his fans from around the world here and visiting Northern Ireland,” says Holywood general manager Paul Gray.
“It’s like a mini museum. It does bring us tourist traffic that we’ve never had before. It’s not on the volume that Royal Portrush or Royal County Down would have but it’s still people coming every season.”
The members of Holywood are fiercely proud of Rory McIlroy and, despite the 29-year-old’s status as one of the superstars of the modern game, he’s never forgotten them or his hometown club.
When he clinched his first major title, in such dominating fashion at Congressional seven years ago, it was back to Belfast where he first returned to a hero’s welcome.
The McIlroy family are deeply entrenched in the club. McIlroy’s father Gerry worked behind the bar and is a multiple club champion.
“When he comes home he does still call in,” adds Gray, who has known Rory since he was a child.
“One of his best friends, Richard McCormick, is still the assistant pro here and works in the shop. Rory does have a strong emotional tie with the golf club. It may be that some other golfers don’t or lose that. Rory has still kept it.”
It’s a close bond that McIlroy is now backing up with his wallet. When Gray unveiled plans to build a gym at the club, as a way of extending Holywood’s reach into the community, what started out as a small project became much larger when the four-time major champion offered to stick his hand in his pocket.
“It was a few years ago and Rory and I happened to be training at the gym,” Gray recalls of the scheme’s origin.
“We were talking generally about the plans I had to put a small fitness suite into the club – really just to extend the facility.
“We weren’t spending a lot of money on it and we had a little area in the old pro shop to do it in. He, very kindly, offered to help and said he would come up and have a look at it with me.
“He came up and, of course, got kind of excited about it all. That turned it from, originally, an £80,000 project into a £1.5 million project and he financially got behind it to help.
“That small gym is now a large performance suite, with three academy bays, simulators and an entertainment area with a bar.
“Rory’s paying for half of it. It’s unbelievable. He’s put that money up front. It’s incredible, no matter how rich you are, to donate that.”
Like the McIlroys, Gray is almost a part of the furniture at Holywood. As a junior member he caddied for Gerry and, after working in Killarney, returned around the turn of the century as Rory was really starting to push on.
“We’re both very passionate about changing how golf clubs are viewed and looked upon, and opening them up to different user groups, getting different people to come and, from that, growing the game of golf. Rory is all about his legacy and what he’s going to leave behind.
“I think he’s seen the whole project and what it’s trying to achieve and that’s why he got behind it so strongly.
“It opens up a market for us to take in some fitness users and sell some gym memberships to a whole new audience of people.
“It’s about opening up and bringing people to the golf club who, ordinarily, would have looked at it and said ‘I don’t play golf so why would I go there?’
“Hopefully, when they are here, they will see what a great food and beverage service we have here and we can tag onto the back of it.”
That audience Gray wants to attract is wide. He wants the community, many of whom are already invested in the club, to think of it as far more than simply a venue for golf.
McIlroy’s donation to the new fitness suite will help achieve that and the construction work to build it is well under way.
“This opens up so much potential for us. Even if it’s trying to run Get Into Golf schemes with our professional, we now have a really good facility to be able to hold them in.
“It’s somewhere to bring people. We have a few months of the year where the weather, and the ground conditions, don’t allow us to get out so much.
“Having these indoor facilities are really going to help us. The main thing is we go from having three or four big income streams (at the club) to now having seven or eight.
“We’re almost doubling our income streams.”