Rory McIlroy managed a smile, but inside he had to be cringing.
McIlroy was preparing to play the final round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship in March, where the world’s Top 50-ranked golfers were entered, when tournament host Donald Trump (you might have heard of him) approached with a club in hand.
McIlroy knew what was coming. Two days earlier, he’d made the wrong kind of splash when he hurled his three-iron into a lake, chasing after the ball he had sent splashing into the same body of water. It was an uncharacteristic show of petulance for the 25-year-old golfer. He regretted it immediately. “It felt good at the time, but not so good now,” he said.
The lowlight had been replayed thousands of times around the globe. That, as McIlroy is beginning to learn, is what happens when you’re the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world. Despite holding that top spot for more than 70 consecutive weeks, people like failure—especially failure followed by a meltdown, however slight.
McIlroy has become the fresh face of professional golf, and Trump, always looking for an opportunity to draw some of the spotlight, was about to pounce. Trump had paid a scuba diver to retrieve the three-iron so he could make a big show out of presenting the club to McIlroy on the range. In full view of the gallery and the media, naturally.
“You know Donald. He’s never one to miss an opportunity,” says McIlroy, who managed to handle the awkward scene with grace. But Trump wasn’t finished. He asked Rory if he could return the club after the round so the financial mogul could mount the three-iron in the clubhouse of his Trump National Doral resort near Miami. Hilarious.
But, such is the life of Rory McIlroy these days. He makes millions of dollars a year by chasing a little white ball and will earn hundreds of millions more by playing with Nike clubs (for which he signed a 10-year, $200-million contract, well more than double the groundbreaking deal Woods signed a decade ago), wearing Omega watches and listening to Bose headphones. In fact, in 2014, Golf Digest ranked McIlroy—and his roughly $50-million annual takehome—as the third highest-paid golfer, just behind perennial high earners Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. And he’s poised to surpass Andy Murray and David Beckham as the highest paid athlete in the UK, where he’s as big a star as they come.
It’s no surprise, then, that even a rich guy like Trump wants to be seen in McIlroy’s company. Consider: four days after the Trump scene, McIlroy was headed to Augusta National to get in some practice rounds for the Masters with another guy you’re familiar with, Super Bowl quarterback Tom Brady. And earlier this year, after clinching the No. 1 spot for the first time, McIlroy received texts of congratulations from some of his own sporting idols, the stars of his favorite soccer team, Manchester United.
Then again, that’s all, uh, par for the course for McIlroy. The Northern Irishman doesn’t just get his face on the covers of sports magazines anymore. He’s crossed over into a mega-star territory, where you can also read about him on the gossip pages of the New York Post and most all of the British tabloids.
On the course, McIlroy has more than justified his earnings and Nike’s sizeable investment. He won the British Open and PGA Championship last year for the third and fourth major titles of his young career. At the Masters, he had a chance to join Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only golfers to have won all four majors by 25, not to mention moving within one measely US Open title of joining Woods as the only player to hold all four major trophies at the same time.
And off the course, McIlroy has done his best to justify the gossipy interest in his personal life. There was his brief engagement with former top-ranked tennis player Caroline Wozniacki. When they called off the wedding just days after the invitations had been mailed out, fans knew just as quickly, thanks to Twitter that, Wozzilroy was over. “The wedding invitations issue made me realize that I wasn’t ready for all that marriage entails,” McIlroy says. Still, the breakup didn’t stop him from winning the European PGA Championship, the biggest victory in Europe, less than a week later.
And if you ask him—and the parade of beautiful women who’ve come since—it worked out for the best. McIlroy has been rumoured to be dating Irish model Nadia Forde and South African actress/model Shashi Naidoo. Truth is, for some time he’s been seeing Erica Stoll, an employee at the PGA of America (though if you’re wondering: yes, she looks like she could model).
McIlroy realizes his life has become a fish bowl. This kind of thing hasn’t happened to a golfer since Tiger, and we all know how that ended. Still, despite the pressure, he knows it beats the alternative. “I’d rather have the questions, because it’s obviously a great position to be in,” he says. “My name is getting thrown around a little bit more than it used to, but I’m okay with that.”
He spends most of his time in a $9.5 million mansion he bought in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where there’s an enclave of top golfers and high-end private courses in the area. It’s a quintessential bachelor pad: incredible views of the Intracoastal, a sparkling pool, a game room, a workout room and a large trophy case that he’s been busy filling. There’s hardly room to hang the club Trump dredged up for him, even if he had wanted to hang it somewhere.
And in his down time, he keeps good company. He’s been known to play fast-paced games with friends like Woods, Rickie Fowler, and Jack Nicklaus, who’s one of the young golfer’s biggest role models.
“I’ve had some great conversations with Jack and I feel very honoured that I’m able to call him up for advice.” McIlroy says. “To have that at my disposal, it has to be an advantage in some way. We’ve talked a lot about managing my schedule like he did, so you can enjoy your life, but still become the best golfer you can be.”
Still, McIlroy admits it’s difficult to balance the very public life that he has with the private life he prefers. “I just want to live my life like a normal 25-year-old,” he says. “I know that that’s sometimes hard to do, because of the public spotlight that I’m under. I’m doing all that I can to be the best player that I can be. But, yeah, of course, you need a balance in your life where you are interested in other things. I’m no different than other 25-year-olds in the world. I want to go out and see my friends, have some fun.” It’s just that how many other 25-year-olds have a $400,000 Lamborghini Aventador, aside from trust fund brats. How many have earned it themselves. It’s amazing, actually, given the possibilities, how adjusted McIlroy is.
McIlroy knows the world is waiting for him to slip up. Occasionally, he has—the club toss at Doral, for example. But he’s managed to limit the bogeys and double bogeys in his personal life. He’s rich and famous and wildly talented, and he’s doing the best he can.
“I know there’s a lot of responsibility in my position,” he says. “A lot is expected of me. I expect a lot from myself.