Wednesday 18 September 2019

'When we were walking down the 16th we passed each other and the cheeky b***** winked at me' - The rise of Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy in action as a 16-year-old
Rory McIlroy in action as a 16-year-old

James Corrigan

Rory McIlroy knows who he has to emulate next week at the Open at Royal Portrush – a teenager who played without a fear or a care, was unfazed by expectation and who brought the renowned Dunluce links to its knees with a still barely believable 61. Yes, McIlroy has to copy his 16-year-old self.

No doubt, the course has altered considerably since the 2005 North of Ireland Amateur Open, because not only have two new holes been added but, as Graeme McDowell says: "They Rory-proofed Portrush straight after the upstart shot an 11-under."

Yet, even with the alterations in mind, the game's leading professionals will still walk around and wonder how anyone could ever go so low, never mind a diminutive schoolboy. In truth, even McIlroy is not sure.

When shown footage of the round by the BBC earlier this year, McIlroy was taken aback by the nonchalance of his younger self's swagger. "I thought it didn't seem that long ago in terms of my career because whenever I look back at Royal Portrush and my development I always think about that round," he said.

"But when I watch it now, it does feel like a long time ago. I walked like a 16-year-old and looked like a 16-year-old and the thing is when you're 16, it takes a lot for your confidence to be dented. My confidence is probably more fragile now than it was then. I had cockiness and sometimes I think I need to rediscover that now. It's funny, there are not many rounds where I can remember every shot – for that round, I do."

McIlroy is not the only one. Randal Evans turned up on the first day of qualifying for the ‘North' with the course-record 64 in his locker.

"I'd set it three years before, having taken it off Padraig (Harrington), who had held it for about eight years and on that morning I pitched up, saw the rock-hard fairways, the rough and felt the breeze and thought ‘nobody will get near it'," Evans said. "I hadn't accounted for Rory."

It would be wildly erroneous to say the boy from Holywood was an unknown.

"I'd first heard of Rory when he was about 11," Evans said. "One of my mates, a good player off scratch, told me he'd been beaten by this kid in a senior club match. ‘I thought he was a caddie,' my pal told me. 'This kid Rory whipped me'."

By 2005, the cat – "the heir to Tiger" – was out of the bag. McIlroy had already won the West of Ireland Championship and the Irish Close Championship that season. "Yeah, he'd have been the favourite and any neutrals were going out to watch him," Evans recalled.

"I was in the group behind and saw him tee-off on the first and hit his approach to six feet and, yeah, the alarm bells rang a little bit.

"But then he missed the putt and I thought nothing of it and concentrated on my own game. I heard he was three under after nine and I thought ‘so what?' But then the crowd ahead just grew, and grew, and grew and people started saying to me, ‘he's chasing you down, Randy – your record's a goner'."

The clubhouse had begun to empty. "It was amazing," Wilma Erskine, the secretary-manager of Portrush, recalled. "It seemed the whole town suddenly turned up and, as there were no ropes for spectators, we had to get a few marshals.

"I remember Rory had on a nice pair of white trousers and had none of the puppy-fat he did a few years later. Just a wee, skinny lad, with curly hair, hitting the ball all that way and making all those birdies. We'd known him here at the club for a while as he'd have been up training with the Irish squad and he'd been on the TV and all. But this was still a huge eye-opener." McIlroy eagled the 10th and then birdied the 11th to go to six under. However, he "only" parred the 12th and 13th and Evans felt secure again.

"I thought 'Calamity' will sort him out," he said. Evans was referring to the then 14th – now the 16th – one of the most difficult par threes in the world, with a deadly chasm between the tee and the green and a forbidding dune ready to ensnare the wayward.

McIlroy birdied it. And then made a three up the par-four 15th. He was eight under and needed three pars for a 64. But with the par-five 17th to come, McIlroy knew the record was on.

"Rory did, he really did, because when we were walking down the 16th we passed each other and the cheeky little b***** winked at me," Evans said.  "I heard the cheers from the 16th green and knew he'd birdie 17th. By then I accepted he'd do it and even wanted him to – I was just in awe."

To make certain, Mcllroy holed a 20-footer to birdie the 18th as well. As this was the Tuesday and not the Saturday, the celebrations were muted, with his father Gerry slapping him across the back. Evans saw McIlroy as he went to his car. "I hugged him and said 'How the f*** did you do that?'

"He's a good bloke, Rory, and always has been. He was never big-headed and said 'cheers' to me, almost like he was embarrassed. Not a hint of ego."

Two hundred and 50 miles across the North Channel, the news soon reached the Open Championship at St Andrews. It was the second day of official practice, with the first round following on Thursday and somehow the teenager managed to disturb the Major matrix. McDowell, who grew up in Portrush, was stunned. "You hear these things on the golf rumour mill – that this kid is going to be incredible, that he is a world-beater at 12, blah, blah, blah'," he said.

"And you usually never hear of them again. I'd not met Rory at that stage, but Darren (Clarke) had and he said, 'this lad is special'. I was at the Open and someone said, 'that McIlroy kid just shot a 61 at Portrush'.

"I replied, 'you mean Portmarnock, right?' 'No,' they repeated, 'Portrush'. I was like, 'wow! He really is special'."

Back at the course, the clubhouse phone was constantly ringing. "The media were all checking if it was true," Erskine said. "‘Are you sure?', they'd say. People were shaking their heads all night."

Of course, McIlroy headed the 64 who qualified for the match-play stage, but was knocked out in the third round, 4&3 by Andrew Pitcher, who is now a regional sales manager for LinkedIn. Two years later, McIlroy turned pro without winning the 'North', but Evans believes something far bigger is in store.

Evans, who is now a landscape gardener, will be at Portrush to watch his bid for what would be McIlroy's fifth and surely most emotional Major.

"I think Rory can win, even with his B-game," Evans said. "They all say 'The Royal' has changed so much since that 61, but it's still the same place in my eyes. And, most importantly, he's still the same Rory." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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