Where Rory McIlroy learned to play

Rory McIlroy tees off
Rory McIlroy tees off

Great courses produce great champions but they can also be the making of them, too, writes Brian Keogh

If you don’t believe us, ask world number one and two-time major winner Rory McIlroy, who captured some of Ireland’s biggest amateur titles on some of our greatest courses before going on to a stellar professional career.

Where would McIlroy be now if hadn’t overcome everything the wild Atlantic elements could throw at him when he won the prestigious West of Ireland title at the legendary County Sligo Golf Club? And he didn’t just win it once; he won it twice.

So where did McIlroy learn the short game skills that helped him hold off Tiger Woods and win the 2011 Honda Classic to become world number one for the first time?

Long hours of practice at his home club of Holywood in County Down gave the rising star the confidence to produce the goods; proven in full when he captured the 2005 Irish Amateur Close title at the parkland beauty of Westport Golf Club.

The challenging County Mayo course held no fears for the 16 year old. Instead, he produced some short game magic when it counted and became the youngest ever winner of a title, which had been captured in the past by future stars such as 2014 European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley, and major-winning trio Pádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell.

Overcoming a links course with a mighty reputation

McIlroy went on to retain the West of Ireland crown in the shadow of County Sligo’s brooding Ben Bulben in 2006. But one of his greatest amateur wins came later that summer when he slayed the mightiest new links course in Ireland, The European Club at Brittas Bay in County Wicklow. In doing that, he became Irish Close champion for the second time.

McIlroy prepared for his title defence by humbling a giant, his mentor Nick Faldo, on the windswept Old Links at Ballyliffin, which is perched on the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal, Ireland’s most northerly county.

From County Wicklow to the wilds of Donegal

Ballyliffin is a great golf course,” says McIlroy, who shot a course record 67 to beat six-time major winner Faldo by a stroke. “They have two great golf courses there. The Old Links, which is a little shorter and a little tighter with small greens. Nick Faldo redesigned it and it is very tricky and a very good test. The Glashedy, meanwhile, is a big golf course measuring more than 7,400 yards.

“They have two brilliant golf courses on a spectacular piece of land so if you have a chance to go to the northwest of Ireland, Ballyliffin should definitely be on everyone’s list.”

Probably the best links course in the world

Just a few days after beating Faldo in Ballyliffin, McIlroy retained the Irish Close title at The European Club and declared that it was the best links course he had ever played.

That’s high praise from a player who grew up just a few minutes’ drive from the great links of Royal County Down and regularly teed it up at Royal Portrush when he was just a young boy.

“The European Club is probably the best links course that I have ever played, and I include Royal St George’s, Royal County Down and Royal Portrush in that,” McIlroy said at the time. “It’s just the definition to it and then there are the sleepers in the bunkers. The fairways are the best I’ve ever played on. It’s totally unbelievable.

“I love courses where you really have to think your way around. It gets me focussed much more. That’s pretty much why I’m so impressed with it.”

In the eye of the Tiger

Back to the Irish Close, and McIlroy was on his way to beat the course record of four under par 67, set by Tiger Woods in July 2002, when he went to the turn in three under par. He had to settle for a 70 in the end, and ended up taking 80 in the second round as the wind blew and the rough took its toll.

He still qualified for the matchplay stages with ease, though, and eventually cruised to the title having learned some valuable lessons about course management and wind play. This, you could say, stood to him later in his professional career.

As learning curves go, this one is on the up.