‘I could totally give you a shot-by-shot rundown, if you wanted,” declared Rory McIlroy. And why not? He may have played hundreds of rounds since then, but the 11-under-par 61, a course record, that he shot at Royal Portrush as a 16-year-old was certainly something to remember.
The astonishing effort, which he produced in the 2005 North of Ireland Amateur Open, is one of the reasons McIlroy is feeling quietly confident about his chances of a second Open Championship victory as the event is held on the Dunluce links on the County Antrim coast this week for the first time since 1951.
“It didn’t really feel like a very special round of golf until I made the turn,” said the 30-year-old, speaking in his role as an ambassador for GOLFPASS, a digital membership scheme that has now been rolled out in the UK and Ireland after its initial success in the US. “I played the front nine at three under par, which is a good front nine of golf, but you’re not really thinking about challenging the course record at that point.
“Then I eagled 10, the way it used to be on the old layout (the course has been altered since then) and I birdied 11 as well. So then, all of a sudden, I got to six-under through 11, and you’re thinking, ‘OK, this could be pretty special’.
“I parred the next two holes. I didn’t birdie 13, which was a good chance, but then I birdied the last five in a row.
“It’s funny, like I keep thinking back, in that stretch of golf, there’s two tough holes, which would have been the 14th, which is now the 16th, Calamity Corner, and then the old 16th, which is now the 18th. And I hit three great shots into those two holes, and I think those two holes are going to be pivotal in the result of this championship.
“You know, 14 – or 16 as it is now – is such a tough par 3, and then 18 is going to be such a tough finishing hole. I remember I birdied both of those. I’d probably pay a lot of money for two birdies on those holes next week.”
According to Graeme McDowell, Portrush was swiftly “Rory-proofed” after that round and, in preparation for it returning to the sporting spotlight for the first time in 68 years, two new holes – the seventh and eighth – have been created.
“I don’t know if there’s real scoring stretches,” opined McIlroy of how the course has been set up for the season’s final major, having paid a visit there before heading to the Renaissance Club for his competitive warm-up in the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open. “The three par 5s – the second hole, the seventh and the 12th – are good opportunities, and then two short par 4s, the fifth hole and the 17th. They are your five best chances to score.
“There are some other holes where you might have wedges in, but the way it’s set up, I think you’ll see a lot of guys being quite conservative off the tee. The rough is pretty juicy, and even spotted around in the rough are these little sort of fern bushes. Your ball can get caught up in those and it makes life very difficult.
“I guess you can get off to a pretty good start, a couple under through seven. Yeah, it could be a little bit like Pebble Beach (venue for last month’s US Open) where guys got off to really good starts and then it’s a matter of hanging on for the rest of the way.”