Here's 61 reasons why Rory is relishing a home challenge at Royal Portrush
21:01 GMT, 27 June 2012
Rory McIlroy was 16 when he stunned a field of his fellow competitors and just about everyone else who had ever played Royal Portrush by somehow going round the forbidding links in 61 strokes.
That was his 'Hello, world' moment, when golf really started taking notice. At St Andrews, where The Open was taking place at the same time, the Portrush authority Darren Clarke found himself fielding more questions on McIlroy’s miracle on his home turf than his own round.
‘Nothing that kid does surprises me,’ said Clarke. And so it has continued in the seven years since, as countless records have fallen during McIlroy’s rapid ascent to international superstar at the age of just 23.
Life's a beach: Rory McIlroy poses on the fifth green on the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush Golf Club
Home sweet home: McIlroy, watched by his father Gerry, during the pro-am for the Irish Open
This special Irish Open, which begins on Thursday on the Antrim coastline, is not just a momentous homecoming, therefore, but a chance to look around and reflect on how far he has come.
The promise shown that day in qualifying for the North of Ireland Championship has been realised to such an extent that each fairway was lined several people deep on Wednesday just to watch him play in the pro-am.
So what does he remember about that 61 ‘Basically, every shot,’ said McIlroy, smiling the way a person does when asked to recall a moment of a lifetime.
As he showed that day, McIlroy can demolish any links when the wind is not blowing. But what about when there’s a little hoolie and a few heavy showers, as are forecast for Thursday
Claret Jug: Reigning Open champion Darren Clarke tees off on the 1st at Portrush in front of his prize
Like father like son: Clarke watches his son Tyrone tee off… and it was a good one!
Rory gave an astonishingly candid response. ‘For sure. If things haven’t gone my way, the fight goes out of me pretty quickly and that’s something I’m working on. I want to become a better wind player and a better bad weather player.’
He will almost certainly get practice here, which could prove invaluable come The Open at Lytham in three weeks’ time.
You could have been forgiven for thinking this was The Open, watching the people streaming in from first light. Time and again, fellow players went up to Clarke and the other Portrush native Graeme McDowell and said the atmosphere was like being at a major.
‘Driving to the course there was just a great sense of pride at seeing the European Tour come to my town,’ said McDowell.
Home town hero: Graeme McDowell is back in Portrush for the Irish Open, which starts on Thursday
Game for a laugh: American movie star Bill Murray partnered McDowell in the pro-am on Wednesday
‘I guess to be part of the reason why this tournament is here, you dream of moments like this.’
McDowell, now US-based, hasn’t played much here in recent years. He has discovered a course fortified by a number of new back tees. ‘I see they’ve Rory-proofed it,’ he said, wryly.
As for Clarke, he took to the links, as he has so often, with his dad Godfrey and his lad Tyrone. The only difference here was that there were 15,000 other people.
Tyrone was dressed appropriately in green trousers and his younger brother Conor was by his side. After a fine drive down the first, his dad gave him a little ‘well done’ punch on the arm. Tyrone looked at him as if to say: ‘What did you think I was going to do — whiff it’
Four seasons’ worth of weather is expected to fall on Portrush these next four days. No-one will be going round in 61.