Where Rory McIlroy learned to play

Great courses produce great champions and Rory McIlroy is the champion of the moment after his win at The Open 2014. Explore the courses that made McIlroy a winner.

When Rory McIlroy claimed the Claret Jug at The Open 2014 he became only the third man in the modern golfing era to claim three Masters titles before the age of 25. Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus are his company in the record books.

Will he do it again when The Open comes to Royal Portrush in 2019? We certainly hope so! 

McIlroy was a winner from an early age. He was raised on challenging links and parkland courses along the Causeway Coastal Route in Northern Ireland and won several prestigious titles as a teenager. No doubt these stood to him when he held off Tiger Woods in 2011 at the Honda Classic to become the 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 he needed to produce the goods: proven in full when he captured the 2005 Irish Amateur Close title. The victory, at age 16, made him the youngest ever winner of the title, which had been captured in the past by stars such as Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell.

It was also in 2005 that McIlroy set a new competitive course record with a score of 61 on the Dunluce links of Royal Portrush Golf Club in County Antrim. The course dates back to 1888 and is the only club on the island of Ireland to have hosted The Open Championship – and looks set to once more in 2019.

Turning pro

In 2007, McIlroy earned a coveted spot on the Great Britain and Ireland team at the Walker Cup, held at the Royal County Down Golf Club. Although his team didn’t take home the cup, he did win his single matches against Billy Horschel. 2007 was also the year that Rory turned pro – teeing off his career with several wins.

After McIlroy became Irish Close champion for the second time, he prepared for his title defense 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.

Ballyliffin Links

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.

McIlroy continues,“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 focused much more. That’s pretty much why I’m so impressed with it.”

The European Club Links

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.

McIlroy was born on the island of Ireland – the #HomeOfChampions – and is a golfer defined by the courses of his youth. Courses that create winners.

By Brian Keogh