Young gun Dermot goes 'West' for glory
OKAY, let's get one thing straight from the start. In golf, there's only one Rory McIlroy. Yet, there aren't too many young players around like Dermot McElroy either.
No youngster should be burdened by comparisons with Holywood's golfing megastar -- not even if their surnames sound exactly the same. Or if 17-year-old Ballymena hotshot Dermot recently made the world sit up and take note by shooting a sensational 61 on a classic course.
In landing 10 birdies in an impeccable final round as he claimed fourth place at the prestigious Peter McEvoy Trophy at Copt Heath near Birmingham, McElroy inevitably stirred echoes of a stunning 61 by McIlroy, then 16, at Royal Portrush in the qualifying rounds of the 2005 North of Ireland Amateur Championship.
Ironically, McIlroy's humbling of the famous Dunluce links that summer left the same Peter McEvoy (and his fellow Walker Cup selectors) with egg on their face as they'd just omitted the teenager from the Great Britain and Ireland team.
Meanwhile, memories of the magnificent back-to-back victories completed by McIlroy at the West of Ireland that spring have been stirred by McElroy's installation as a 7/1 favourite by the bookies for this year's 'West', which opens at Rosses Point today.
Clearly, somebody fancied McElroy's chances enough to put a few bob on him. However, those odds are outlandish when one considers his relative inexperience (he was beaten in the second round on his Rosses Point debut last year) and the wealth of seasoned amateur talent in the West of Ireland field.
One thinks of McElroy's colleagues on the national senior panel, like Lytham Trophy winner Paul Cutler; or Rathmore's Alan Dunbar, who beat him in the final of 'The North' last summer; or Rory Leonard (35) the defending champion this weekend.
Yet such is McElroy's gift, one cannot rule him out either. McElroy didn't swing a golf club for real until age seven, but those who witnessed this moment instantly recognised his talent.
Ballymena club professional Ken Revie will never forget the day McElroy turned up at a clinic organised for local primary schools.
"Dermot had missed the first week and when he turned up, we were doing bunker play," Revie recalls. "So I just threw a ball into the bottom of the bunker and told him to go and hit it.
"The practice bunker at Ballymena is quite deep and Dermot couldn't have been more than two-foot tall at the time, or so it looked. Anyway, he hit that first ball out and straight onto the green.
"I could hardly believe my eyes," Revie added. "So I threw another ball down and asked him to do it again. Whack, he hit that one straight onto the green as well. Clearly, he was a natural."
McElroy's elder brother, Niall, had been the only member of his family who played golf but once he gave it up, Revie ensured the boy had someone to play with, taking him on over 18 holes once each week from age nine to 11.
"Dermot always won," he says with a smile. "Except on the one or two occasions he might have played poorly. From the early years, he's always been very competitive."
Intriguingly, McElroy, then only 12 (and playing off three!), was in the gallery at Royal Portrush to witness McIlroy's 61 and was held rapt by every stroke.
"It was fantastic. It was an unbelievable day and the atmosphere was fantastic," remembers McElroy, who has never met or spoken to McIlroy apart from a shy "well done" offered to his idol at Portrush that afternoon.
As for following McIlroy into professional golf, he smiles and says: "Yeah, I'd like to play against Rory some day."
That's unlikely to happen soon, Revie suggests. Though McElroy left school last September with four GCSEs in his back pocket, the coach explains: "He's in no hurry to turn pro. He's a young 17 and will do things in his own time."
Revie sees no reason to compare McE and McI. "He'd certainly regard Rory as a role model but, because there's a gap of four years between them, I don't think they've ever played in the same event.
"Dermot didn't take up the game as early as Rory and he has progressed gradually.
"And it's often said of Tiger Woods that he won at every level he played on the way up and that's what Dermot has been doing too, again in his own time."
Yet comparisons will be inevitable as McElroy shines on international outings with the national squad, including the recent European Nations Cup in Sotogrande, in which he led the Irish effort in a tie for third and was top U-18 player.
Another rare talent is on the brink of stardom.
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