From as early as the time he was chipping golf balls into a washing machine on TV as a 9-year-old prodigy from Holywood, Northern Ireland, Rory McIlroy has shouldered great expectations. But the stories of his abundance of talent and potential to be his country’s next great champion went next-level when, at age 16 in the stroke-play qualifying for the North of Ireland Championship, McIlroy blitzed Royal Portrush’s Dunluce Links in a course-record 11-under 61.
“A member of the golf club phoned me and told me, and I thought it was a joke,” Michael Bannon, McIlroy’s longtime instructor, told TheOpen.com recently. “No one can shoot 61 around Royal Portrush.”
“I actually thought he didn't play the last two holes,” said Maureen Madill, a longtime club member and former tour professional turned broadcaster. “I asked, ‘Did he play the whole way around? 17 and 18?’ I thought, That's extraordinary.”
Indeed, it was. In many ways, his 61 on July 12, 2005, confirmed that all the hype about McIlroy was for real. It’s also among the reasons why McIlroy is the bookies’ favorite this week when a reconfigured and, as Graeme McDowell put it, Rory-proofed Royal Portrush will play host to the 148th British Open (tee times).
Last year at the Memorial at Muirfield Village, McIlroy had gone out early on Saturday and posted a 64. With nothing better to do, he was chilling on a comfy couch in the players’ locker room when I asked him how he possibly shot 61 at Portrush. His eyes lit up, he smiled broadly and invited me to sit down. Who doesn’t like reliving one of his best rounds, right?
“I remember every shot from that round like it was yesterday,” he said. “It was the first time I ever played 18 holes without a bogey.”
Like any golfer, he remembered a birdie that got away – right at the first – but he missed little thereafter. Driver and 6-iron led to a two-putt birdie at the second, and he tacked on birdies at Nos. 6 and 9, where he wedged into the par-5 ninth, to turn in 33.
He eagled the par-5 10th and made a deuce at the par-3 11th to go to 6 under, and that’s when he started thinking about breaking the course record of 64. He finished with five straight birdies to shatter it.
“That was a special day,” he said in the understatement of the day.
Best round ever, I asked?
“It’s up there. Definitely up there,” he said before adding the most telling moment of our conversation. “It’s the first time I’ve ever felt in the zone. Ever since, when I get 7, 8, 9 under in a round, I’ve never been afraid to push it further.”
I had just played Portrush a week earlier, and 61 seemed hard to fathom. The wind off the North Channel is usually intense and constant, but not on the day I played. I lathered in suntan lotion and wore shirtsleeves and, by golly, shorts to enjoy the unusually balmy conditions. McIlroy knew all about the forecast of blue skies, a warming sun, and the absence of the course's trademark blustering wind that I had enjoyed, and he cracked, “If we got weeks like that all the time, I’d probably still be living there.”
Technically, McIlroy is no longer the official course-record holder as modifications have changed the layout, but he knows he’s returning to a place with good vibes.
“My confidence is probably more fragile now than it was then,” McIlroy said recently. “I had cockiness, and sometimes I think I need to rediscover that now.”
Can he channel the memories of his 61 at Portrush to end his major-less skid, which spans 19 majors, to the 2014 PGA Championship? It’s not quite as long or stunning as the 10-plus-year drought that Tiger Woods ended at the Masters this year, but McIlroy has been stuck on four majors for far too long for a player of his ability.
“One of the phrases that I've used recently is ‘give myself permission.’ I want to give myself permission to be free. Give myself permission to storm the castle,” McIlroy said on the “Rory & Carson Podcast.”
“I'd rather lose playing that way than lose playing conservatively and not really giving myself a chance. I'd rather play to win.”
He noted that he played far too conservatively when he was paired in the final group on Sunday with Woods at the 2018 Tour Championship, but he had the proper mindset in June when he torched Hamilton Golf and Country Club – like Portrush another Harry S. Colt design – in a final-round 61 to win the RBC Canadian Open. That round was shades of McIlroy at 16 “storming the castle” at Portrush.
"I wanted to put my foot down from the start, and I played with the freedom I wanted to play with," he said. "And I think that if I continue to play with that freedom, and not be as careful or as tentative when I get myself in these pressure situations, it's going to be the best way for me to produce the golf that I produced in Canada."
McIlroy will have the support of an entire country, but he also will face enormous pressure to hoist the Claret Jug again. Much will depend on whether Royal Portrush proves to be a horses-for-courses place for McIlroy the way Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C., has become one of his favorite stomping grounds.
“I shot 62 [in the final round to win] at Quail Hollow in 2010 on the old setup, and then they went and redesigned it and I went back in 2015 and shot 61 [in the third round en route to victory] on the new course,” McIlroy said. “Hopefully the same things happen at Royal Portrush. I hold the record on the old course, but it would be special to come back to the Open and break it on the new one.”
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @adamschupak