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A Star’s Nod Can Do Wonders

by Lewine Mair - October 09, 2017

ST ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | At last week’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, Rory McIlroy hesitated only briefly in naming the well-known sportsman – it was Roy Keane from the footballing fraternity – who had refused him an autograph when he was a small boy. “It sort of stayed with me ever since,” he said. “So that’s why, if a kid asks me for an autograph, I always try to do it.”

The subject came up after someone had recalled a moment from the previous week’s British Masters when the cameras had homed in on McIlroy as he handed a ball to some small child. McIlroy was quick to point out that there was nothing unusual in what he had done. “I mean, I use between six and nine balls a round and, every time I need a new one, I give the used one to some young kid. Basically, everyone does it.”

Fireworks and fancy formats may play their part in encouraging youngsters into golf but it would seem that nothing makes more of an impression on a little one than a kind gesture from a hero. It could be the gift of a ball or a high-five, or it could be a friendly exchange such as the one initiated by Phil Mickelson recently when he asked a tiny lad in the gallery if he would go for the green from his position or lay up. The wide-eyed fan had answered that if he could hit his 3-wood a bit farther, he would choose the green option.

For Tommy Fleetwood, who broke the course record at Carnoustie last Friday with a 63, a defining moment came when, as an 8-year-old, he had his picture taken with Ernie Els at a TaylorMade juniors’ afternoon at Wentworth. To this day, the Fleetwood family has a photo of the massive Ernie standing with his hands on young Tommy’s shoulders.

Fast forward to this year’s BMW International Open in Germany when Els and his wife, Liezl, asked Tommy and his partner, Clare Craig, out to dinner. Ahead of the meal, Els had suggested that they drink a toast to Tommy and Clare’s unborn baby, a boy by name of Franklin who would appear on 28 September.

Tommy had marvelled – in fact, he is marvelling still – at how much it meant to him that a picture taken all those years before should have had such an amazing sequel. “I turned to Clare on the way back to the hotel and said, ‘You have absolutely no idea just how cool an experience that was for me.’ ”

Both Tommy and his father, Pete, have similarly vivid memories of a moment which made a difference from the Open Championship of ’98 at Royal Birkdale. Tommy had insisted that he and Pete join a queue in order that Pete could take a picture of the boy with Colin Montgomerie, Tommy’s other great hero. Three quarters of an hour later, when finally their turn arrived, they were treated as if they were the first in the queue rather than the last. Monty asked Tommy his name and he sat him on his lap for the photo. That, though, was where things went wrong. Pete’s camera seized up.

It will come as no surprise that Tommy is as good with kids as Els and Monty were with him.

Martin Kaymer is another in that league. At last year’s Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa, Kaymer was being filmed by the European Tour when he noticed a little local boy staring at him. When he realised that it was the same boy who had followed him round the previous year, Kaymer stopped what he was doing and introduced “my little buddy” to everyone doing the filming. As Michael Gibbons, the European Tour’s chief press officer remembers it, “He made him feel like the most important kid in the world.”

Three-time major winner Pádraig Harrington never went chasing after balls and autographs for himself, for the very understandable reason that he preferred “hanging around Irish Opens and eating ice creams.” Yet he understands precisely the extent to which such things can appeal: “You can give a child a ball and he’ll be a fan for life.” Yet in Harrington’s opinion, the youngster has to earn it. He never gives balls to those who are simply out to collect as many as they can without caring who the donor might be.

Rather does he only hand them across to children who have been watching him. “If they follow me, they will go away with a ball.”

It tickles Harrington that Guan Tianlang was one such child. Guan had followed Harrington at a Hong Kong Open and, the next thing Harrington knew, the 14-year-old Chinese prodigy was playing in The Masters.

Finally, another Els story. In 2002, Dave Cannon, the well-known photographer, went to Els’ home in Wentworth to take a picture of the star with the Open Championship trophy he had won the week before. Cannon was accompanied by his small son, Chris, who had his heart set on becoming a cricketer.

Els insisted that the boy have his picture taken with the Claret Jug and, that same night, Chris announced that he was giving up cricket. Earlier this year, Chris won his first event on the Sunshine Big Easy Tour, the developmental golf circuit in South Africa that bears Els’ nickname.


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