Rory McIlroy: Masters champion, Irish Open hopeful

Rory McIlroy didn’t just become the island of Ireland's first Masters champion in April. His victory at Augusta National at the age of 25 also made him the second youngest player after Tiger Woods to complete the Career Grand Slam. The boy, it seems can do no wrong.

When Bubba Watson helped Rory McIlroy into his Masters green jacket, the superstar from Holywood in County Down became a five-time major winner and just the sixth player after Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods to complete the career Grand Slam.

But just where did this exceptional talent learn the skills to take on the world’s best and beat them? We explore the courses that have made McIlroy one of golf's living legends, including Royal County Down, where the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, Hosted By The Rory Foundation will take place in May.

Where Rory McIlroy learned to play…

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 at the Honda Classic in 2011 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 at Westport. 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, possibly as early as 2019.

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Turning pro

After McIlroy became Irish Close champion for the second time at the European Club in 2006, 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.

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 turned professional straight afterwards and became one of the fastest players to win his European Tour card.

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 in a 2006 exhibition match.

“They have two great golf courses there,” Rory says.

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.

“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, County Wicklow

In the eye of the Tiger

Back to the 2006 Irish Amateur Close Championship at The European Club, McIlroy went to the turn in three under and was on his way to beating the course record of four under par 67, set by Tiger Woods in July 2002. 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, has stood to him later in his professional career.

Born in Northern Ireland, McIlroy is a golfer defined by the courses of his youth. Courses that create winners in the #homeofchampions.

By Brian Keogh

Meet Graeme McDowell – another star of the golf circuit who’s a home boy at heart.

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