Monday 16 July 2007
It was the Open Championship that looked like being notable for an exit. Instead, Rory McIlroy was to provide the entrance. Seve Ballesteros stepped into the Carnoustie media centre to confirm a painful reality. “For a few months there was something confused inside of me,” explained the Spaniard. “There was a fight, internal fight. My head said: ‘I think you should retire.’ I keep saying that over and over, but my heart was keeping telling me, ‘You would be better to continue playing and compete.’ I made probably the most difficult decision of my career. I decided to retire.”
However inevitable, Ballesteros’s news sent shockwaves throughout the game. “Seve had phoned, asked if he could use Carnoustie and, of course, we said yes,” recalls Peter Dawson, the former chief executive of the R&A. “It was a big deal and it was sad.”
If the story of the 136th Open appeared set, a teenager from Northern Ireland had other ideas. McIlroy was the reigning European amateur champion, a status that afforded him Open exemption for the first time. To suggest the 18-year-old, with a portly appearance hugely removed from a decade on, arrived in Scotland as an unknown would be a huge misrepresentation.
Peter Dawson: “Rory was the up and coming, swashbuckling amateur with a great career ahead of him. There was no doubt about that. He was recognised as the most likely lad to rise to stardom, but you can never be sure about these things. Many have looked good but never made it.
“He was known to us before the Open because of his amateur record. He was a very exciting young man, a real prodigy. Every year there are good amateurs who come through but very few of them have star quality. He clearly had star quality. He had a swagger and he was good enough.
Darren Clarke: “You could see the raw talent he had all through the foundation time (Clarke had McIlroy as part of his foundation from the age of 13). He was destined to be a top-class golfer. You see people in all walks of life with outstanding talent, in whatever arena, and he was in that category. He was way above what I had seen.”
Thursday 19 July
McIlroy shoots a 68, the only bogey-free round of day one, to share third on the leaderboard. McIlroy’s score was one better than his idol, Tiger Woods. He had Henrik Stenson and Miguel Ángel Jiménez as playing partners.
Rory McIlroy: “It was just like a chill down the back of my spine with the ovation I got. I soaked up the atmosphere and really enjoyed it. I just wanted to come here, try to make the cut and win the Silver Medal [for the best amateur], and that was about it, really. I come into these weeks just trying to learn as much as possible. I think I’ll be able to sleep all right. I’m knackered. It’s pretty special feeling to say you shot one better than Tiger.”
Friday 20 July
McIlroy slips to a second round of 76 but survives the cut by three shots. As the only amateur to reach Saturday, his silver medal is already secure.
Miguel Ángel Jiménez: “He can handle himself. But sometimes the people put too much pressure on the players. He’s a little bit too young. But he’s a good player. He did very good out there. You have to take care not to put too much pressure on people.”
Chubby Chandler (head of International Sports Management that would sign McIlroy when he turned professional): “He was unbelievably confident. He wasn’t fazed at all by what was going on around him. He relished the attention. He had been born for that.
“I had an interesting chat with him on the patio at Carnoustie. He asked me if he could buy a house. He hadn’t turned pro yet but he said: ‘I think I should get a foot on the ladder.’ He was so grown up for an 18-year-old kid and had amazing foresight to know he would have the money to buy one as soon as he turned pro. He was just an amazingly confident kid.
“I’d known him since he was 13. He went into Darren’s foundation then, with a one or two handicap, and he was tiny. He bounced along, he had more to say than everyone else put together but in a nice way. He was full of vim, vigour and youthful exuberance. He wasn’t fazed by being in Darren’s company; it was cool for a 13-year-old to have Darren Clarke’s number.”
Saturday 21 July
McIlroy is paired with the American Arron Oberholser. In brutally tough conditions, the amateur signs for a 73 against Oberholser’s 72.
Arron Oberholser: “I watched him hit his opening tee shot and thought: ‘Man, who is this kid?’ We didn’t know about him in America. If you had said his name to me a week before the tournament, I don’t believe I would have known who he was. If he had won the British Amateur, for example, we would have known about him. So, quite honestly, he was this Northern Irish kid and I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t even know how he got into the tournament.
“I remember the 4th hole specifically. I hit a driver and seven-iron into the green. He hit driver and I thought: ‘That’s a different flight that I haven’t seen from many guys before.’ Then we get up there and he is 15 to 20 yards past my drive. I could overhear the chat with his caddie. Rory was asked: ‘Do you want to hit a soft eight?’ He was 145 yards out. It was grey, it was cold, it was windy. It was into the wind. He said: ‘No, nine‑iron.’
“He took the nine, put the ball back in his stance and the shot made a sound I’ll never forget. At that point I’d only ever heard one player made that sound with their irons: Tiger Woods. He just hit it so clean, so crisp and there was so much effortless speed at the bottom of the swing. The way he compressed the ball was unlike anything I’d ever seen apart from Tiger. At 18 years old. He hit these shots that just bored through the wind, the wind couldn’t affect them.
“He went round that place and didn’t bat an eye. It wasn’t like a big deal. It was like he was walking around his home course on a Saturday with the boys.
Sunday 22 July
McIlroy signs off with a level-par 72 in the company of Scott Verplank. A five-over aggregate is barely relevant with the Silver Medal confirmed. McIlroy finishes in 42nd place. Padraig Harrington wins his first major after a dramatic play-off victory over Sergio García.
Chubby Chandler: “That was where Rory expected to finish. Or higher.”
Scott Verplank: “He was a nice kid but I just remember thinking how talented he was. I had never seen an 18-year-old hit the ball like he could hit it. He could hit the ball 330 yards, straight, and I was like: ‘Wow.’ I also remember his big old mop of hair.
“I told him when we finished: ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing and I think you’ll be OK.’ Since that day, I’ve been a fan. I remember the drive he hit at the 18th. It left him like an eight iron into the green. It got to the end of the tournament; Sergio was hitting a two iron off the tee and a two iron into the green. I was in the hotel watching, saying: ‘Come on, Sergio, hit a driver; just like this Rory McIlroy kid did earlier.’ Sergio stuck to his gameplan but didn’t win.
Rory McIlroy: “Hopefully, it’s the shape of things to come. I think I’m getting better all the time, progressing as a player. Hopefully, I’ve got a few more Open Championships in me. It’s a great performance, first major, first Open Championship, and hopefully I can go on to bigger and better things.
“I’m still the same old Rory McIlroy. I’ll go up to Holywood golf club after this, I’ll see my mates and stuff, and nothing will have changed. But I’m sure I’ll probably have a bit more attention after the way I played this week. I’m sort of prepared for it, but it’s still going to be a bit of a change for me.
McIlroy refrained from turning professional immediately, instead fulfilling his dream of playing in a Walker Cup at Royal County Down later in 2007. Ten years on, as a four-times major winner, he heads for the Open seeking to lift the Claret Jug for a second time.