The Northern Irishman broke the Dunluce course record at Portrush at the age of 16
The Inside Story Of Rory McIlroy's 61 At Royal Portrush
‘This golf course has changed so much,’ said Rory McIlroy in his pre-tournament press conference.
He was reflecting on his record-breaking round of 61 – 11 under par – on the Dunluce Course, set on 12 July 2005 when he was just 16 years old.
‘It’s a different par, there are different holes and a lot of holes have been lengthened… I think this week, with conditions likes this, 67 or 68 will be a good score.
If the rain eases and the wind, which is whipping across the links, dies then he said he could ‘potentially see someone shoot a 63,64, 65.’
Whether McIlroy brings his A-game or not this week, his name will forever be associated with Royal Portrush thanks to that round, which comprised eight pars, nine birdies and an eagle, and bettered the previous course record by three shots.
More importantly, it was a round that confirmed that in the curly-haired tyro from Holywood, golf had discovered a once-in-a-generation talent.
Royal Portrush is somewhere McIlroy has been familiar with from an early age, having been taken there when his father Gerry competed in the North of Ireland Championship.
While his dad was out battling on the Dunluce, the young Rory could be found practicing his chipping.
He duly got his first taste of the course as a special treat on his 10th birthday, which was also the day he first met Darren Clarke.
When McIlroy arrived at the North of Ireland Championship in the summer of 2005, he was already regarded as the best amateur golfer in Ireland.
He had become the youngest ever player to win the West of Ireland Championship earlier that year, as well as adding the Irish Closed Championship to his burgeoning list of achievements.
For the two qualifying rounds of strokeplay he was paired with Stephen Crowe and Aaron O’Callaghan, two players he had played alongside on representative teams.
‘It was a pretty good draw to have,’ recalled Crowe, who was 22 at the time. He added that it was always easy to know where McIlroy was on the course because he was invariably followed by a crowd.
Crowe had first encountered McIlroy a couple of years earlier.
‘The first thing you noticed was a 14-year-old who was better than us,’ he told The Guardian.
‘The banter was always great between us but we were probably wondering “Who is this little so-and-so making us look ordinary?”
McIlroy’s opening 71 on the neighbouring Valley Course at Portrush was solid enough but offered few portents of what was to come.
On day two, the Holywood youngster arrived dressed all in white save for a pink belt. He opened up by hitting his sand wedge approach shot close on the uphill par-4 first hole on the Dunluce, but narrowly failed to convert the birdie putt.
On the par-5 second, known as Fred Daly’s, McIlroy striped a driver down the fairway and found the putting surface with a 6-iron before making a routine two-putt birdie. Three pars in a row followed before he went to two under for the round with a birdie on the difficult par-3 6th hole.
His next birdie came at the dog-leg par-5 9th, which plays as the 474-yard par-4 11th on the reconfigured course for the Open.
McIlroy unleashed another huge drive before finding the raised green with a pitching wedge to set up another simple two-putt birdie.
He had reached the turn in 33, three under par — a fine score but not one that suggested Padraig Harrington’s course record was in jeopardy.
By this stage of the round telephone updates were being sent back to the professional shop where long-serving club pro Gary McNeill was to soon learn that McIlroy had eagled the par-5 10th.
A birdie on the downhill par-3 11th saw McIlroy gently teased by his playing partners for his fist pump of celebration.
‘All of a sudden he was six under par,’ recalled Crowe.
‘It was like an explosion. If you get under par on the Dunluce, you’d be playing for pars… Rory just kept going. He had that self-belief and confidence in himself.’
As word spread of McIlroy’s remarkable scoring spree, the galleries following the group grew.
‘The more people appeared, the better he got,’ said O’Callaghan.
‘It was very obvious he was a show-off, almost, where he thrived on the energy of the people.’
Two pars followed on the 12th and 13th before McIlroy arrived on the tee of Calamity, the infamous long par-3.
McIlroy hit a picture-perfect high draw that started out over the rough-strewn valley before landing on the green.
He rolled in the putt to go seven under for the day and suddenly the course record was in sight.
As the crowds got bigger so McIlroy played better and better. The two on the 14th, which is now the 16th, sparked a run that has entered folklore.
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McIlroy had now entered ‘the zone’, a state he describes in the film as like ‘an out of body experience.’
He duly birdied the downhill par-4 15th to go eight under. And whereas most competitors in the field were taking either a 3-wood or long iron from the tee on the 16th — now the closing hole, McIlroy smashed a driver to set up a wedge and another birdie: nine under through 16 holes.
All he now needed was two pars for the the course record.
On the par-5 17th, which is no longer in play, McIlroy took himself to a quiet spot to collect his thoughts. ‘It felt to me like the whole country was out there,’ remembers O’Callaghan.
‘I had never seen that many people at an amateur event.’
Harry Diamond, McIlroy’s closest friend and now his caddie, had finished a few groups ahead and was sitting in the clubhouse feeling quietly satisfied with his round of level par. Word was spreading, however, of the pyrotechnics out on the course.
On the 17th, Crowe had to ask the crowds to move back so he could hit his approach shot.
McIlroy then found the front edge of the green with a long iron and two putted for another birdie, his fourth in a row.
He was now 10 under par as he moved to the tee on the 18th, a long par-4 requiring a drive between fairway bunkers.
McIlroy smoked another perfect drive, and found the heart of the green with an 8-iron.
Knowing that he had three putts for the course record, he stroked his 20-footer straight into the cup for a scarcely believable round of 61.
Fellow competitor Donal Casey, who is now CEO of Rory McIlroy Inc, describes the score as ‘earth shattering’.
When Michael Bannon, McIlroy’s long-time swing coach, got a phone call relaying the news, his reaction was one of disbelief. ‘No-one can shoot 61 around Royal Portrush,’ he said.
McIlroy entered the clubhouse and Kenny Fahey, who was playing in the North of Ireland Championship and is now Head Pro at the GUI National Golf Academy, recalls there being a hush. It was a mixture of awe, astonishment and pure respect.
‘He didn’t even go on to win the North and no-one cared,’ Fahey told The Irish Times.
McIlroy was knocked out in the matchplay stages but the news of his score had already travelled across the sea.
On walking off the final green of the Old Course at St Andrews at the end of a practice round before the 2005 Open Championship, Darren Clarke was told of McIlroy’s record-breaking round. He promptly sent a text congratulating the youngster.
‘Whenever I think about Royal Portrush and links golf and my development, I always think about that round,’ McIlroy reveals in the film. ‘There are not too many rounds of golf where I can remember every shot but for that round I do.’
‘I had that cockiness and thought this was what I was supposed to do. It is only when time goes on that I realise these things are special and you should savour them.’
‘As a 16-year-old it takes as lot for your confidence to be dented. My confidence is more fragile now than it was back then.’
The changes to the course at Royal Portrush mean that McIlroy’s 61 will never be beaten as the course record on the old Dunluce layout.
What he would give to experience that same ‘out of body’ sensation this week.
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Dan is a very well respected writer, he did some freelance writing for Golf Monthly in 2019.
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