Thursday, July 11, 2019

He has won four major titles, two World Golf Championship events and been on the winning Ryder Cup team four times, but there is only one round of golf where Rory McIlroy can remember every shot.

It came in the North of Ireland Championship in 2005 when he was a 16-year-old amateur, although it could be argued that such a feat of memory is somewhat easier when there are only 61 shots to recall.

The round in question was at Royal Portrush and can never be surpassed given the changes to the course made since, but it would have been a brave soul to bet on anyone wiping McIlroy’s name from the record books in any event.

“It didn’t really feel like a very special round of golf until I made the turn,” McIlroy recalled ahead of the Open’s return to Portrush for the first time since 1951.

“I missed a good chance for birdie on the first and played the front nine in three under, which is a good front nine of golf but you’re not really thinking about challenging the course record at that point.

“Then I eagled 10 and then I birdied 11 as well. So then all of a sudden I’m six under through 11 and you’re thinking, ‘OK, this could be pretty special’. Then I parred the next two holes and didn’t birdie 13, which was a good chance, but then I birdied the last five in a row.

“It’s funny. I keep thinking back and in that stretch of golf there’s two tough holes, the 14th (Calamity Corner), which is now the 16th, and then the old 16th, which is now the 18th.

“I hit three great shots into those two holes and I think those two holes are going to be pivotal in the result of the Open Championship. You know, 16 is such a tough par three and 18 is going to be such a tough finishing hole.

“I remember I birdied both of those and I’d probably pay a lot of money for two birdies on those holes in a few days’ time.”

McIlroy’s potential was already well known in Irish golfing circles by that point, but it was that 11-under-par 61 which really made people sit up and take notice, including Portrush native Graeme McDowell.

“I do remember when someone first told me about that round because you often hear about the next great thing,” McDowell said. “We’ve got this kid, he’s playing off +7 and blah, blah, blah.

“Then he shot 61 in the first round of qualifying for the North of Ireland and I’m like, ‘Really? OK. Hold on. Now I’ve got to pay a little more attention to this’.

“That was probably the first time that I realised that we had something pretty special on our hands from the point of view of Irish golf and Northern Irish golf.”

McDowell and McIlroy have been partly responsible for the Open returning to Northern Ireland after such a long gap, their major championship victories – plus those of Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington – increasing the pressure on the R&A to overcome any commercial or logistical challenges.

“I never thought I’d be able to play a major championship as home but it’s just about harnessing that support and harnessing that environment the right way and trying to use it to your advantage,” McIlroy added.

“I’ve had a great record in the Open for the last few years so there’s no reason to believe why I can’t go ahead and put up a really good fight at Portrush as well.”

PA

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