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For Rory McIlroy, It All Started at Royal Portrush

Rory McIlroy was just 16 years old when he broke the course record at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland, home to the British Open this year.

He shot a 61. It was that round at the 2005 North of Ireland Championship — highlighted by nine birdies and one eagle — that ignited his career. It was the announcement to the golf world that he had arrived.

“It was unbelievable and surreal how someone managed to shoot such a low score — he was only 16,” Gary McNeill, the Royal Portrush club pro who was there that day, said in an interview.

“Everyone was shocked,” he said. “It was a special day, and a signal that this kid was something. Lots of kids have something, but rarely amount to much. He was impressive in the way he was able to maintain that concentration and focus. He was fearless. That’s one of the things that all the great players have.”

Stephen Crowe was McIlroy’s partner that day.

“It started off steady enough,” he said. “I was thinking it was going to be a solid round, but nothing special. Then from nowhere he went from 2 under to 6 under.

“At that stage, word was getting out. He always had a crowd around him, but that day the crowd got bigger as he got more birdies.”

McIlroy also knew he had done something special.

“I was still lying in my bed last night thinking about it,” he told reporters the next day. “To shoot 61 anywhere is unbelievable, but to shoot it round Royal Portrush is even better.”

Fourteen years later, McIlroy still remembers that day. “There are not many golf runs that I remember every shot, but that day I do,” he said in a recent interview released by the tournament.

He remembers missing a putt at the first hole for a birdie. Driving a 6-iron onto the green at the second, where he two-putted for a birdie; and the birdie he made on the par-3 sixth hole. He remembers his wedge shot on the par-5 ninth and the eagle on 10. With a birdie on the 11th, he was 6 under. “At that point I realized I was doing something special,” he said. Five birdies followed.

At the 17th hole, there was a wait as players gathered at the tee. McIlroy stepped away to take some practice swings.

“I think I had probably caught myself thinking about it a little too much,” he said. “I wanted to go clear my head a bit and start afresh with a new golf shot.”

McIlroy returned to the tee and hit a perfect drive, followed by a long iron to the front right side of the green and a two-putt for birdie. He closed out the round with a final birdie and carded a 61, breaking the previous course record of 64 set by Randal Evans in 2002.

“That confidence I had and the cockiness at 16,” he said. “Sometimes, I need to rediscover that.”

Royal Portrush has two links courses: the Dunluce Links and Valley Links. The Open, which starts on Thursday, will be played on Dunluce, on a par-72, 7,317-yard track designed by Harry Colt.

[Read more on how the British Open finally returned to Royal Portrush after almost 70 years.

Royal Portrush previously hosted the British Open in 1951. The club also held the Irish Open in 2012, where McIlroy tied at 10 with 11 under. It has changed slightly since his course record, with the golf architect Martin Ebert updating it to meet championship standards.

McIlroy played the front nine last Saturday, including the new seventh and eighth holes.

“He just played them all alone,” said McNeill, the club pro. “He was really excited. He was buzzing.”

McIlroy called the new eighth hole, a par 4 at 430 yards, “a huge improvement.”

There are two bunkers to contend with. “You have two options,” he said. “You can take the bunkers out of play short or you can take the bunkers out of play long. Most guys lay back.” McIlroy played long.

He recognized the pressure to perform for hometown crowds.

“In my lifetime, I never thought I’d get to play an Open championship at home in Northern Ireland,” he said recently. “It’s going to be massive. That week has been earmarked for a long time. It’s going to be one of those weeks where I have to enjoy the opportunity of getting to play in front of my hometown, not trying too hard, not putting myself under a lot of pressure. Just to go out and enjoy it, because it might be the only time I get to do it.”

Source: NYT

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