It was on McIlroy’s ninth birthday when the pair first met at Portrush and, three years later, his game was thriving through being involved in the Darren Clarke Foundation.
Now, at the age of 25, McIlroy finds himself on the verge of greatness as he heads into The Masters in a fortnight’s time with a chance to become just the sixth player to complete golf’s career Grand Slam.
“It’s an incredible step, but kids like Rory don’t come along too often,” reflected Clarke. “Rory had that something special about him when he first came to my foundation as a young kid. He was different. And he still is.
“To have as talented a kid and as good a kid as Rory is great. He came through the foundation and then supported me for the Ryder Cup captaincy, he’s a great kid, a very special young man. He has a great sense of responsibility for the game.”
McIlroy, who has won the last two majors, completed his preparations for a date with destiny by breaking par in all four rounds as he finished joint 11th behind American Matt Every in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill on Sunday.
“If he doesn’t win at Augusta this year, he’ll win next year,” insisted Clarke, the 2011 Open champion. “If he doesn’t win next year, he’ll win the year after. He’s going to win there some time. His game is perfect for there. It’s only a question of when. He’s that good. He’ll have a great chance next month. It’s suited perfectly for him. That high draw when his swing is on is just perfect around there. He’s got the shots, he’s got the touch, he moves the ball both ways, he flights it whatever way he wants. He’s also got those soaring, high long irons that Tiger [Woods] would hit in his prime.”
That, of course, seems a distant memory and, after dropping another nine spots, Woods has now slipped to 96th in the world after finishing last year sitting at No 32. Bedevilled with chipping yips, he’s still to decide if he’ll return from a self-imposed break at The Masters.
“He’s struggling a bit with his fitness and his game – it’s not the Tiger we know,” said Clarke of the 14-times major winner. “But I don’t think we should be too hasty to write him off because he’s gone through so many swing changes in the past and managed to prove people wrong.
“He’s one of best players that’s ever played. We tend to forget that a bit too quickly and it would be wonderful to see him back at Augusta playing the golf we all know he can play.”