EVER since a caveman impressively floored a woolly mammoth with a bit of flint, and an enraptured onlooker grunted a request to have said hunter’s name daubed on a clump of rock as a cherished keepsake, humans have always pursued an autograph.

Like a hattered sports editor signing off the weekly expenses, Rory McIlroy will have put his name to a variety of odds and ends thrust into his clutches down the seasons. It’s par for the course when you’re a sought-after, inspiring global superstar but McIlroy has always embraced this wider sense of duty.

At last week’s British Masters, there was cheery footage of him handing a young fan a golf ball as he walked off a green at Close House. The wee lad in question is probably still rooted to the spot as we speak in wide-eyed, mouth-gaping wonderment.

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There was a time, of course, when McIlroy was the star-struck youngster elbowing and jockeying for a slice of their idol. But what do they say about never meeting your heroes?

“Roy Keane should be one of my heroes,” said the 28-year-old of the former captain of the team McIlroy supports. “He was a Manchester United player. I remember I went and asked for his autograph at the Portmarnock Links Hotel when he was with the Ireland squad and he said ‘no’. I’m sure he’s alright but that sort of stuck with me ever since. That’s why, if a kid asks me for an autograph, I’ll always try to do it.

“It just shows what such a small thing can mean to a kid. And that kid might be inspired to go and play. It’s a nice thing to be able to do. But I’ve had it go the other way, as well, where I’ve asked someone for an autograph as a kid and they didn’t give it to me and I’ve never liked them since.”

In the celebrity-infused smile-fest that is the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, the autograph hunters will be out in force for the rich pickings on offer. This is the last chance to grab McIlroy’s signature for a while as he shuts down from competitive golf for the next three months.

In a topsy-turvy, stop-start, injury-hindered few months, which has seen on-course frustrations tempered by the off-course happiness of marriage, 2017 has been something of a bittersweet year.

“In a golfing sense it has not been the year that I wanted but a lot of great things have happened to me off the golf course and 2017 will always be a year I remember because of that,” said McIlroy, who is facing a winless year for the first time since 2008.

“So it hasn’t been the year I wanted in terms of my career, but you’re going to have years that just don’t quite go your way. I’ve tried my best to play well and persevere and play through an injury and it just hasn’t quite happened for me.”

McIlroy has been here before. In 2013, amid well-documented equipment changes, he endured a fairly modest season by his standards but came roaring back in 2014 with victories in the BMW PGA Championship, the Open, the WGC Bridgestone Invitational and the US PGA Championship during a shimmering summer.

“I think this year has not been anywhere near as bad as the year I had in 2013 and I bounced back from that year pretty well,” reflected McIlroy, who showed optimistic signs last week with a second place finish in the British Masters. “Hopefully I can do the same next year.”

While McIlroy is preparing to down tools after this week’s circuit round the great trinity of Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and the Old Course, Tommy Fleetwood, the current leader of the Race to Dubai, is gearing himself up for a late-season push after taking time off for the birth of his first son.

“I could talk about it (the birth) for a year if you really wanted me to,” he gushed. “Anybody that has been through it will tell you it’s surreal and it’s amazing. It shouldn’t be beautiful but it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Fleetwood, who was joint runner-up in the Dunhill Links back in 2014, has a big run of events coming up as the tour builds towards its lucrative Final Series.

He hasn’t played for a month and is hoping the break can galvanise his push to be crowned Europe’s No 1. “I would love to win the Race to Dubai, absolutely love it,” he said. “The nice thing about it (the break) is that we don’t really get an off-season these days so this spell off has been a little bit like that for me. Sometimes it freshens you up.”