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Rory McIlroy looking forward to rare first in Tokyo

It's been a while since you could call Rory McIlroy a rookie, but the Tokyo Games give him a rare chance to experience something new.
By Ken Browne

It's been a while since Rory McIlroy did something for the first time on a golf course.

Ever since 1999, when he was a nine-year-old chipping balls into a washing machine live on TV back in Northern Ireland, it was clear he was destined for great things.

He certainly achieved them, joining Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in winning four majors by the age of 25, and spent over 100 weeks at the top of the world rankings.

While we won't see Tiger in Tokyo, there will be a first for McIlroy as he gets set to represent Team Ireland at his debut Olympic Games.

Rory did not play at Rio 2016 when the sport returned to the Olympics for the first time since 1904, something he says he regrets, and he's not going to miss out this time around.

The 32-year-old called it "a good opportunity to do something that I've never done before," as reported on Ireland's national broadcaster RTE.

"I've been around now for a long time, so it's sort of rare to be able to do something for the first time again. I'm sort of looking forward to that." - Rory McIlroy

Coming off the back of a solid US Open showing at Torrey Pines - where he was in contention until the back nine of the final round and finished joint-fifth - McIlroy is hitting form at the perfect time ahead of the biggest sporting show on the planet.

And with 2019 Open Championship hero Shane Lowry also set to tee it up in Tokyo, Irish fans will have high hopes of a podium finish.

Rory McIlroy: The prodigy who believed

McIlroy's thrilling rise to the top of the golf game is often put down to talent and natural-born brilliance, and while that's definitely part of the story, it isn't all of it.

The reality is much more mundane: endless hours on the driving range and putting greens, countless mornings in the gym, the sacrifices of his parents, and his own unshakeable belief.

"I always thought I was special," he told the Golf Channel in 2020, "I always thought I would be the best player in the world, but thinking it and believing it are two different things."

Born into a golfing family, his father Gerry played off scratch.

When a young Rory begged for his own golf club and finally got one, the story goes that he took it to bed with him at night.

Rory McIlroy's coach: Michael Bannon

Golf was all that mattered to a young Rory, even naming his first dog Theo after four-time major winner Ernie Els (full name Theodore Ernest Els).

Pestering his dad to take him every day to his local Holywood Golf Club, Rory became the youngest ever member aged just seven.

The local pro at the club, Michael Bannon, was a family friend and became the young prospect's coach. Remarkably he's still his coach to this day over 20 years later.

"He's been huge in my career, someone that I can trust one hundred percent, who'll tell me the truth when it's needed. I definitely wouldn't be who I am as a golfer or a person if I didn't have Michael by my side for this journey." - Rory McIlroy to Golf Channel

But far from a life of privilege, McIlroy's mother worked in the local masking tape factory at night and his dad took on three jobs to pay for Rory's expensive trips to compete in golf tournaments in the United States.

A young McIlroy matched gift with graft and his unwavering belief paid off: He won the under-10s World Championship at Doral in Florida aged nine, hit his first hole-in-one at 10, and left school at 16 to follow his golfing dream.

At 17, he was world amateur No.1, and turned pro a year later.

Rory McIlroy - inspired by Tiger Woods

When McIlroy turned professional at 18, Tiger Woods was at the peak of his powers and had already ushered in a new era.

An era where golfers were physically stronger, hit the ball further, ate better, and spent hours in the gym to gain every advantage they could.

Woods may have been Rory's idol, but such was this young upstart's belief in his own ability that he actually wrote a letter to him in 1998 that said something like:

'I'm coming to get you. This is the beginning. Watch this space,' as covered by bleacherreport.com.

McIlroy was all in for whatever would give him the edge, and imitated Tiger by worked tirelessly and methodically, hitting the gym four times a week in hour-and-a-half sessions, eating well, sleeping well, hitting harder.

Like Woods, McIlroy hits the ball a long way off the tee to give him plenty of eagle and birdie opportunities. And he says his driving is improving with every year that passes.

"In a way I always had a complex about length," he told Golf Channel, "I wasn't a big kid and I knew I needed length all the time and I knew I needed to hit it harder and hit it longer."

McIlroy and Woods share a laugh at the Japan Skins in 2019. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Picture by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy: The perfect swing

Through constant practice and fine-tuning, his body evolved a way to generate more power.

"I've got this double lag thing that goes on in my hips, it's just something that I subconsciously did to try and get a bit of extra length and turn the ball over from right to left," McIlroy shared.

These days, McIlroy has an average driving distance of 318.70 yards on tour (291.4m), with only Bryson DeChambeau hitting further on average at 322.4 yards (294.8m)

His swing is so revered that Filipino sensation Yuka Saso who just won her country's first ever major has spent hours and hours watching it on repeat on YouTube, trying to deconstruct and emulate it.

Are Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy friends?

"I remember when I was 14 or 15 suddenly going from hitting the ball 250 to hitting the ball 280," McIlroy goes on, "I feel like I've gotten longer with every year that I've played and nowadays in the modern game that's a very important thing to have."

He needed it to compete with Tiger, and while the two have occasionally been in the final pair on Sunday together - like the 2018 TOUR Championship which Tiger won - they're now good friends.

“I mean, anytime Tiger Woods tees it up in a golf tournament, it’s better,” McIlroy said recently. And after Woods' car crash in February, McIlroy spoke to the American in hospital and then visited him at home.

The 15-time major winner might have been laid up in hospital but he was still messaging Rory 'words of encouragement' competing on the PGA Tour:

“Even from the hospital bed, he’s still giving me some heat,” laughs the Northern Irishman.

Rory McIlroy: Olympic favourite?

It looks like Tiger will be watching his friend and rival once more this August with the men's Olympic golf competition running from 4-7 August.

McIlroy, whose fourth and last major triumph came at the 2014 PGA Championship, might have hit form just in time for Tokyo 2020 in 2021. But he won't have things all his own way.

The cut-off date for qualification was 22 June, with US Open champion and new world no.1 Jon Rahm stepping up for Spain.

The next eight in the world rankings were all American, but with only four allowed from each country and no.2 Dustin Johnson ruling himself out, Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, Xander Schauffele, and DeChambeau will represent Team USA.

Home hopes will rest on the shoulders of Matsuyama Hideki who became the first Asian-born man to win a major at The Masters in April 2021, while Paul Casey and Tommy Fleetwood will aim to keep the title in British hands after Rio 2016 champ Justin Rose failed to qualify.

Norway's Viktor Hovland is seventh in the final IGF Olympic Rankings, one spot behind McIlroy who's determined to make it a summer of firsts.