Can McIlroy produce more Portrush magic?

Rory McIlroy
could hardly ask for a more opportune moment than this to play an Open on the green, green grass of home.
Five years on from his last major victory, the tone of commentary in the build-up would have been rather more critical if the event was being staged somewhere other than his Northern Irish birthplace for the first time in 68 years — and the venue wasn't the coastal beauty of Royal Portrush that he relished playing each summer growing up.
It means the feelgood narrative is all about Rory's return rather than McIlroy misfiring. In the first round on Thursday of the 148th edition, it will be up to him to keep it that way.
During these years when the majors have come and gone with Rory failing to add to his tally of four, he has spoken longingly about the search for the golfer who played with the carefree abandon of youth.
There could be no more appropriate place than the Dunluce links for a deep dive into the oceans of time to summon the teenager within. It was at Portrush that the 16-year-old McIlroy first introduced himself to followers of the game outside of Ireland, with a round that left club members astounded and the wider golfing audience agog.
The North of Ireland is an amateur event that doesn't normally attract interest outside the Emerald Isle, and particularly when it is held the same week of The Open, as it was in 2005. But, in the locker room and the media centre at St Andrews, people stopped what they were doing as news filtered through that the Irish hot-shot mentioned on the grapevine had just lived up to his 'star of the future' billing and more by carding an astonishing score of 61.
'I'd heard all about this great kid who played off plus seven, blah, blah, blah,' said Portrush native Graeme McDowell. 'But when I'd heard he shot 61 around that course, I knew I was going to have to pay a lot more attention.'
Stephen Crowe was Rory's playing partner that day. Tracked down by Sportsmail, he works in the family building business just outside Belfast, and still plays off scratch. He's six years older than McIlroy, and had played in the same Ulster team at under-21 level. Nothing, however, prepared him for what he saw that day.
'It was a surreal moment in amateur golf at the time, and a privilege to witness it,' he said. 'The thing that impressed me was that when amateurs were having a good day back then and got to three or four under, they usually went into protective mode to keep hold of the gains they had.
'Rory was the opposite. He was fearless. When he got to five under, he wanted to get to six under, and so on. With that round, he might have changed the whole mindset that amateur golfers had.'
Rory's round of rounds actually started like many others. 'It was a decent day weather-wise, so to be two under after eight was good to that point but nothing special,' said Crowe. 'Then he birdied nine, eagled the 10th and birdied the 11th. By then, I was starting to wonder how low he could go. Even so, you're still not thinking 61. At Portrush? Come on.'
By now, word was running around the course like wildfire. The old 16th hole — the 18th for the Open this week — comes back to the clubhouse, and it duly emptied as fellow competitors and club members joined McIlroy for the final two holes, on his walk into history. By this stage he was nine under, and he found the par five 17th in two shots and two putted for another birdie. At the par four 18th, he was 30ft away in two.
'I'm sure he was just trying to get the putt close,' said Crowe. 'Then it dropped in, and the enormity of what he'd done began to sink in. Even now, people ask me did I ever play with Rory and so we end up talking about that day.
'We knew Rory was good before then. He was always the one you thought: 'Well, if he doesn't make it, nobody will.' After that round, you knew he would go on to be the player he has become.'
Portrush member David Young, who played in that North of Ireland, remembers the mood in the clubhouse. 'Everyone was in a state of shock and astonished that anyone could shoot 61,' he said. 'You look at his card, and it's just fantasy golf. I think if you ask any member who knew him back then, they'd all say they're delighted he's done so well. He was always so polite and approachable. We'll all be hoping he can win the Claret Jug, to go alongside that record score.'
With two new holes — the seventh and eighth carved out of the adjacent Valley course to replace the old 17th and 18th — a new course record will be set this week, meaning that McIlroy's miracle in 2005 will always hold its special place, untouched in years to come. 'I've played thousands of rounds but there's only a handful where I can recall every shot and that's certainly one of them,' says McIlroy, now.
So, to Rory's return. He's certainly had plenty of practice in recent years when it comes to dealing with expectation. Every April, it hangs in the air among the azaleas and dogwoods at Augusta, stifling his bid to win the Masters and complete the fabled career Grand Slam.
Can he find that inner 16-year-old on the journey back to Portrush? 'I guess it's the same golf course I've grown up playing my whole life and it's the same tournament where I haven't finished outside the top five for the last few years, so they're good factors to remind myself about,' he said. 'You know, if I look back on the last 14 years since that day, I've achieved basically everything I wanted to in this game. I'm in a very lucky position, and I should go out and play without a care in the world.
'I want to really enjoy the experience, look around, and see friends and family and people wanting me to do well. Smell the roses. The more that I can do that, roll with it and play with that freedom, the better I think I can do.'
 
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