When Rory McIlroy raised the US PGA's Wanamaker Trophy high in the air in Louisville, Kentucky in the United States in 2014, he laid claim to a staggering four major titles by the age of 25. Later on in his career at the age of 32, he'd represent Ireland in the Summer Olympic Games at Tokyo 2020, and would eventually tie for third place.
But just where did this exceptionally talented young player find the skills to take on the world’s best and beat them all at their own game? We explore the courses that have made McIlroy a four-time major winner.
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 – first in 1951, again for a second time in 2019, and will also return in 2025.
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, though success took a while as he didn’t win his first tournament until 2009.
Fast forward six years and McIlroy was back at Golf Digest's World No. 1 course, Royal County Down, for the European Tour event, Horizon Irish Open in 2015 as the tournament host. Using his Rory Foundation to promote the event, the pride of County Down raised huge sums for local charities.
Speaking of Ballyliffin, after McIlroy became Irish Close champion for the second time, he prepared for his title defence by humbling a giant, his mentor Nick Faldo, on the windswept Old Links at Ballyliffin. “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 an exhibition match. “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.” Ballyliffin can also add “Host of the 2018 Irish Open” to this ringing endorsement.
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 up at Royal Portrush when he was just a young boy.
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 in his professional career since then.