Since murmurs first surfaced from the fairways of Holywood Golf Club of a young Tom McKibbin’s talents, a certain Rory McIlroy’s name was never too far behind.
The latest prodigious player from the Belfast club has a long way to go before replicating his idol on golf’s main stage but inevitable comparisons have been hard to avoid as McKibbin made his way up the junior ranks at home and abroad before turning professional last year.
Still just 19-years old, McKibbin carries conditional status on Europe’s secondary Challenge Tour in 2022 but I wanted to ask him if he also carries a burden of expectation given the ongoing links to global star McIlroy as he makes his way in the game.
“Definitely not,” McKibbin said. “I try not to read much about myself or anything like that. I’ve heard the comparison since I’ve been nine or 10 years old so if anything, it’s got a little old now.”
Predictably, one of the first things McKibbin was asked about on the eve of his professional debut at last April’s Tenerife Open was McIlroy. He’s not living in the four-time Major winner’s shadow, far from it, but as flattering as the comparison remains as his fledgling career takes flight, McKibbin is determined to get out from beneath this perceived wing of McIlroy’s and forge his own identity.
“It’s still a compliment being compared to Rory,” he said. “I’ve been compared to him a lot since I’ve been young and of course it’s a compliment. He’s so good, he’s probably one of the best golfers ever.
“But it doesn’t change me, or make me do anything different. I probably thought it was so cool when I was younger and obviously it’s still a big compliment but I’m Tom, and I’m going to do my own thing.”
Dealing with any expectation is difficult, let alone being compared to a future Hall of Famer before you’ve reached your teens, but McKibbin’s journey has been very much his own to this point, and it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. A phenomenal junior, McKibbin enjoyed a glittering, albeit short amateur career. The Northern Irishman enjoyed victories on both sides of the Atlantic, not least at the Junior Honda Classic aged just 12, the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley and the Peter McEvoy Trophy.
There were team honours, representing GB&I twice at the Jacques Léglise Trophy before earning a first senior cap for Ireland at the Home Internationals at Lahinch in 2019, but where most leading amateurs go on to college in America and Walker Cup fanfare, McKibbin’s ascent coincided with Covid and much like the rest of us, his best laid plans suffered.
McKibbin, who had verbally committed to the University of Florida for the Autumn season in 2021, saw the class schedule he and his family had planned his future around completely shift.
“There was no real online schooling, so the teachers would just sort of send you the work and you weren’t taught it,” McKibbin said.
“Trying to do their exams and my exams online would’ve been a lot of work and I probably would’ve had to stop playing a few competitions for a few months to catch up on all the study, and I didn’t really fancy doing that. I was all for going, just Covid made everything a little harder.”
Not only that, but one exam that was moved from the original schedule suddenly coincided with the Walker Cup at Seminole. College golf may have vanished from the horizon, but the biennial contest between GB&I and the USA remained firmly on McKibbin’s radar, until an anticipated phone call from selectors delivered an unexpected result. McKibbin hadn’t made the team.
“I can’t remember exactly when it was but I was told I wasn’t picked, and that was it really. The call probably only lasted a minute and a half. It wasn’t much of a chat,” he laughed.
Still, the omission stung the teenager, not because it denied him the chance to compete at one of golf’s most prestigious amateur events, but more so that it was at the famed Seminole Club in North Palm Beach, Florida.
“To play in that Walker Cup was a big goal because it was at Seminole. If it was anywhere else, maybe it wouldn’t have been, to be totally honest,” McKibbin said.
“Being at Seminole, the build up to it, everything around it seemed like it would be a really cool event to be part of but as it turns out now, I’m probably glad I didn’t get picked.
“It meant I got off to a bit of a head-start in pro golf. I don’t think Walker Cup would’ve been much of a benefit and I haven’t really thought much about it since.”
With college and the Walker Cup off the table, and the amateur golf calendar largely crippled by the pandemic, McKibbin soon decided that it was as good a time as any to take the plunge into the paid ranks. Yes, it was a few weeks earlier than planned – McKibbin would’ve turned pro after Seminole regardless – but having been snubbed for selection, he signed his first professional contract with management company JMC Sport instead, with a hint of added motivation as he made the transition.
“I mean, I probably do have a point to prove but at the same time, I don’t really care,” he said.
“I’m just going out and doing my own thing and getting it done that way. I don’t want to go out with an attitude of ‘I have to play well because I’m going to prove him wrong’. Maybe there’s a little bit of a point to prove but I’m not going to let any of that distract from what I’m doing.”
True to his word, McKibbin made hay while the sun shone on a curtailed first glimpse of pro golf in 2021. He missed his first three cuts in May as he felt his way into a new environment and career but a tied-12th finish at the Irish Challenge at Portmarnock Links launched his season heading into summer and off limited starts, he secured conditional status for the 2022 Challenge Tour campaign.
In golf, especially with limited opportunities, taking your chances when they come is paramount to success and McKibbin was up for the task at the first time of asking this term, recording a third place finish on invite at the Cape Town Open in February where he slept on a two shot lead heading into the final day.
“I actually wasn’t that annoyed after the Sunday,” McKibbin said of his final round 73, eventually leaving him three shots shy of the winning mark. I felt I played pretty good, just got a few unlucky breaks, particularly on the par-3s with the wind swirling in the trees and changing at the wrong time.
“I played fine, did the same things I did the first three days, it just wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t tense up or anything like that. I thought I did the right things, it just didn’t pay off.”
Having picked up his first pro victory a month earlier stateside in the Minor Golf League, where he came from five back with a final round 62 in Florida, McKibbin proved, just like he did so often as an amateur, that he knows where the finishing line is. Although a victory on the Challenge Tour would’ve represented a big step forward, so too did securing a podium finish, some 10,000+ Road to Mallorca points and the belief, if it was needed, that his game is ready to compete with the best players on the Tour.
On day two at Royal Cape GC, McKibbin began his round with seven birdies in a row before signing for a blistering 10-under 62. Further evidence that he has both the firepower and the will to go deep into the red; a deadly competition, albeit a necessary one for the modern player.
And yet for all the order of merit points, the low scores and the seamless transition to tour life, perhaps the greatest win McKibbin has had so far in his short career is convincing his right-hand-man, Chris Selfridge to caddie for him this year on Tour. A former looper of recently retired Michael Hoey and DP World Tour winner Ryan Fox, Selfridge was a super player in his own right, and now serves as a familiar face and guide McKibbin is grateful to have by his side.
“I’ve been quite friendly with Chris for five or six years now and just through chatting to him, I knew he wasn’t doing too much so I approached him and hoped that he’d agree and he did, which is great,” said McKibbin.
“Chris is a really knowledgeable guy and he’s been really good so far. He’s helped me a lot, not just on the course but in practice as well. I’m still getting used to Tour set-ups. On the Challenge Tour there’s more strategy involved and Chris is a great help with that.
“You have to remind yourself that, yeah, there’s the pin, but you have to take this line or land it this far short to finish five yards short of the pin.
“It would be very easy to fall into the trap of, ‘it’s 150 yards, I’ll just hit it 150 yards’, when maybe you should be trying to hit it 142 yards! But Chris helps with the calculations.
“It obviously costs money getting a top caddie like him but but I think you’ve got to do it right if you want to get something really good out of it in the end. No point not investing in yourself and ending up in the same spot in five, 10 years’ time.”
In terms of starting from a solid footing, McKibbin has an enviable foundation from which to build. Crediting the massive support he has received from TaylorMade, JMC Sport, Grant Engineering, Galgorm Castle, 30 Church St and Wirefox, McKibbin accepts he’s very fortunate to have such systems in place so early in his career, with the added bonus of a mentor in McIlroy on the other end of the phone should he ever need advice from someone who’s been there and done it.
“Rory has always been great, it’s all so casual with him,” McKibbin said. “When we go and play, it’s just two guys going out and playing golf together.
“He’s given me advice through the years but it’s advice for that time and then, not any hard advice. But even if there was something big, I’m probably not going to tell many people!”
I asked Tom if some of that advice had centred around dealing with the spotlight. McIlroy has openly struggled with social media, reading about his celebrity and protecting his private life, and although McKibbin’s exposure has been on a much smaller scale, he says it’s something he’s learned to live with since childhood.
“I’ve seen things written about me since I’ve been very young and I guess I’ve gotten used to it. I don’t go looking for it but if you see something that isn’t nice it can get in your head. Especially around events, there’s no need to fill your head with crap, or to be overthinking stuff. I try to just keep the phone off,” he said.
Not only is he used to it, but McKibbin is using his media experience to his advantage.
“Being so used to it from such a young age, it probably helps now that I’ve actually turned pro,” he explained.
“I’m sure there are people who don’t experience it when they’re younger and they come out here and it’s a source of worry. They might be nervous over an interview and it could affect them. I’m used to having a good round, walking off the green and chatting to someone.
“I’ve been 10 or 11 years in front of a camera at this stage, it doesn’t really bother me. I’d say I’m probably a lot smarter with my answers now though. I know what to say a bit more, I’m a bit more careful because people can misinterpret you and stuff like that. But overall, I’ve been doing it so long that it’s just normal.”
If McKibbin is to follow in McIlroy’s footsteps, and it’s a big if, he realises the fallout from great golf is fame that will feed into his time away from the fairway like never before. Until that day comes though, McKibbin has a career to build for himself, a career that remains rooted in a sturdy foundation but one, with the help of coach Johnny Foster and so many others, could yet skyrocket to the moon.
“We’re always trying to get better,” he said. “But you have to be careful that you don’t change something that you’ve done for years and could easily set you back.
“I’ve seen it lots from people but if you turn pro and you’re playing well, you need to believe you’re good enough. There’s no need to take a risk and search for something. If you’re good, you’re good.”
For now, McKibbin’s feet remain planted and after a great start to his Challenge Tour campaign, that’s where they’ll remain with a stern focus on earning DP World Tour promotion. A big ask, but one he won’t be shirking.
“The ultimate goal at the end of the year is to have a DP World Tour card or something close to that,” McKibbin concluded. “That would be the big, big goal but it’s just about getting better every day. Keep knocking out the results and working towards making the end goal happen.
“I won’t be putting too much pressure on myself. Golf for me has always been about getting the ball in the hole in the fewest amount of shots and I try not to complicate it any more than that.”