You can never predict a historic round, but Rory McIlroy was dressed for the occasion.
His bold fashion belied one of the strengths that allowed him to shatter the course record at the most iconic course in his homeland. His mock turtleneck and pants were white as snow. A pink belt accented the outfit, as did a pink stripe across his back. His hat, a lighter shade of the same color, sat atop curly hair that showed hints of highlights.
“The confidence I had, and the cockiness I had at 16, sometimes I think I have to rediscover that a little bit,” McIlroy recent told TheOpen.com.
Throughout his career, McIlroy has announced himself with assaults on par. His 61 at Royal Portrush during the 2005 North of Ireland Amateur was the first display of that skill. It was a special round that proved the phenom from Holywood was as good as advertised.
He’s gone on to win 16 times on the PGA TOUR, including four majors, this year’s PLAYERS Championship and the 2016 FedExCup. Any adult who’s dealt with disappointment can relate to his yearning for the innocence of youth, though. Returning to Royal Portrush for this week’s Open Championship gives him the opportunity to do that.
McIlroy has a sterling recent resume in The Open. He has four consecutive top-5s, including his win in 2014 (he missed his title defense with an injury). His 69.0 scoring average since 2014 is at least a half-stroke lower than anyone else.
Words like “jaw-dropping” and “unreal” were used to describe McIlroy’s incredible round at Portrush. Even the best professionals from Northern Ireland had never come close to matching the precocious 16-year-old’s score.
Padraig Harrington had held Portrush’s course record for years with a 65. It had only been lowered by a stroke before McIlroy shot a back-nine 28 during the qualifying rounds for the 2005 North of Ireland Championship.
“Whenever I think about Royal Portrush and about links golf and my development, I always think about that round of golf,” McIlroy told TheOpen.com. “There are not many golf rounds where I remember every shot, but for that round I do.”
A similar round isn’t likely this week in the final major of the season. Royal Portrush’s Dunluce Links was toughened before hosting its first Open Championship since 1951, with two new holes (the par-5 seventh and par-4 eighth) that required a routing adjustment. Thus, McIlroy will be seeking a new course record to go along with the one he set 14 years earlier.
Like many special rounds, the one in 2005 started inauspiciously. He missed a short birdie putt on the first hole. Then he hit a 6-iron onto the green of the second hole and two-putted for birdie. He had to wait four holes for his next birdie, though. He finished the front nine with another two-putt birdie after reaching the par-5 ninth with a wedge, making the turn in 3-under 33.
He eagled the 10th and added another birdie at the par-3 11th. People began streaming onto the course to catch a peek at history. Gary McNeil, Royal Portrush’s head pro, was getting updates back in the pro shop. McIlroy’s longtime swing coach, Michael Bannon, thought it was a joke when he received his first report of McIlroy’s magical round.
“No one can shoot 61 around Royal Portrush,” he thought.
McIlroy, recognizing the magnitude of the putt, fist-pumped when he holed his putt on No. 11, even though he responded sarcastically when he saw a player in the group ahead give a similar reaction on the same hole. After making two consecutive pars, McIlroy birdied the final five holes, including the long, treacherous par-3 known as “Calamity Corner.”
He showed his maturity by stepping away from the crowds during a long wait on the 17th tee, using the time to collect his thoughts. He admits he was just trying to two-putt the final hole, but his 20-footer fell for the perfect ending.
“It felt normal to me,” McIlroy told TheOpen.com.
One of his playing partners that day, Stephen Crowe, was particularly taken by McIlroy’s finish.
“He didn’t take his foot off the pedal, he didn’t miss a shot the last two holes,” Crowe told NationalClubGolfer.com. “He hit driver and a long iron to the par-5 17th. He always hit it long, even for the size of him; he only put on muscle after he turned pro and he was always aggressive. He wouldn’t shy away from a shot and he had the belief that he was going to pull it off.
“The old last was a tough tee shot with lots of bunkers, but he stayed aggressive, found the fairway and hit an 8-iron into the middle of the green and then holed about a 20-footer.
“That was the most impressive thing, how he kept things going. Lots of us wouldn’t have had the mindset to shoot that sort of score but he did.”
McIlroy has compared that round to his final-round 62 at Quail Hollow in 2010, another unthinkable score that netted him his first PGA TOUR win. Five of his 16 PGA TOUR titles have been won with a final-round score of 65 or lower. He shot a final-round 61 to win this year’s RBC Canadian Open and earned his first FedExCup with a closing 64 at the 2016 TOUR Championship.
He’s the only player other than Tiger Woods to win multiple majors by eight or more shots. He won his first major, the 2011 U.S. Open, with the lowest 72-hole score in that championship’s history.
His record-setting round at Royal Portrush gave an early glimpse into his uncanny ability to go low.
“There was always a feeling in Northern Ireland that we had a very big talent in Holywood, but it was only from age 12, 13 or 14 that we really started to hear about him,” BBC reporter Stephen Watson told TheOpen.com. “He started to break record after record after record, was on TV now and again and so that was how we first heard of him.”
Earlier that year, McIlroy had become the youngest winner of the West of Ireland Championship and the Irish Closed Championship.
His round at Royal Portrush only raised those expectations. News traveled quickly throughout the tiny town of Portrush. The crowds swelled as word spread.
McIlroy’s round occurred two days before the start of the 2005 Open Championship. The golf world was concentrated in St. Andrews, but reports of McIlroy’s round made its way across the Irish Sea.
Darren Clarke, who plays out of Portrush, met McIlroy years earlier and gave the prodigy his phone number so he was available for advice. “He was just different” than the typical teenager, Clarke said.
When Clarke walked off St. Andrews’ famous 18th green after his practice round, one of the first queries from the assembled press was about McIlroy’s round. It’s not often that a top-20 player gets asked about an amateur, but that illustrates the significance of the score.
“We said, ‘Did you hear what Rory did in the North?’” recalls Irish journalist Brian Keogh. “He was taken aback and we were all amazed at such a low score.”
Clarke sent a congratulatory text to McIlroy. Graeme McDowell said that round changed his perception of his younger countryman.
“You hear about the next great thing. ‘We’ve got this kid, he’s playing at plus-7 (handicap) and blah, blah, blah,’” McDowell said. “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 have to pay a little more attention to this.’
“That was probably the first time that I realized we had something pretty special on our hands.”
Fourteen years later, that 61 remains a touchstone for McIlroy. When he won the RBC Canadian Open last month, he acknowledged feeling the same way as he did in 2005.
“It’s almost like you’re out of your own body and looking at yourself play,” he explained. “… If I could bottle that feeling and take it with me week to week, I would. Sort of comes and goes.
“Just a matter of being confident with your game and everything sort of falling into place.”
Now McIlroy returns home, back to Royal Portrush, hoping it all falls into place again. This time, the stakes – just like the lean teenager who has grown into one of the world’s best golfers – are much bigger.