Player Feature
Rory McIlroy
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A links hero at the top of his game

Rory McIlroy’s illustrious career has been intertwined with The Open ever since he burst onto the scene at Carnoustie as a fresh-faced amateur. 

So it is only fitting that this summer, both he and the Claret Jug return home to Northern Ireland.

In July, Royal Portrush in Antrim plays host to The Open for the first time in 68 years and what McIlroy would give to taste victory in his homeland. 

A former Champion Golfer of the Year, back in 2014 at Hoylake, McIlroy’s record at The Open reflects his status as one of the world’s greats. 

He is in fact one of only two men to have won both the Silver Medal for best amateur and The Open itself. The other man to achieve the feat? A certain Tiger Woods. 

And when it comes to McIlroy’s record in the only major not played on American soil, it really has been a tale of two halves. 

Amateur Brilliance 

As an 18-year-old, McIlroy arrived at Carnoustie in 2007 on the verge of turning professional.

Already being talked up in golfing circles as the next big thing, it was on the Angus links that the youngster announced himself in the greater sporting consciousness. 

With unkempt hair but in complete control of his game, the teenager had earned his spot among the golfing elite by winning the European Amateur Championships the year before. 

And rubbing shoulders with the greats of the game brought out the best in McIlroy who fired a bogey-free first round of 68 on what is often widely regarded the toughest Open course of the all. 

And while he slipped down the leaderboard thereafter, he went on to finish as the top amateur that year in a tie for 42nd overall, securing the Silver Medal in the process. 

It already looked like a matter of when, not if, the youngster would be challenging on the weekend at the game’s oldest major. 

Early Flashes 

Two years after his Open heroics, McIlroy was a fully-fledged professional and already into the top 100 in the world. 

His first Open as a pro went off without too much fanfare, a tied 47th at Turnberry an impressive early marker. 

By the time he returned however in 2010 to St Andrews, McIlroy was a bona fide contender. 

A third-place finish at the PGA Championship at the end of 2009 was proof enough of that, but at the Old Course he produced an astonishing opening round of 63 to tie a major championship record.

A maiden major looked on the cards for the young tyro, who missed a birdie putt on the 17th ‘Road Hole’ for a course record on that opening day. 

But after his bogey-free 63 on Thursday, the Old Course came back to bite him on Friday as the Northern Irishman ended up carding an 80. 

That effectively ended his chances, but few were going to stop Louis Oosthuizen that year.

And McIlroy showed admirable powers of mental recovery to right the ship and ended up in a tie for third that weekend.  

Open Struggles 

The stage was set for McIlroy, and in 2011 he turned all his potential into prizes. 

Despite that infamous Masters heartbreak, he destroyed the field at Congressional to claim his maiden major – the US Open. 

He backed it up in 2012 with the PGA Championship but at The Open – the early promise was yet to be fulfilled. 

Indeed, just looking at the results, it appeared links golf was the final piece in the puzzle that McIlroy could not quite find. 

In 2011 at Royal St George’s he was tied for 25th but never really in contention at the top of the leaderboard.

In 2012 he was firmly in the picture after his first round at Royal Lytham & St Annes but faded thereafter to end up down in a tie for 60th. 

And then in 2013 – a forgettable year in general by McIlroy’s marvellous standards – he ended up missing the cut at Muirfield after an opening round 79. 

On that evidence, few could have predicted the magic of 2014. 

Hoylake Hero 

But there is a reason that McIlroy is universally lauded as the game’s greatest talent since Tiger. 

And, a year on, it all clicked into place as the man from Holywood inked his name into Open history forever. 

The warning signs arrived at Wentworth in May when McIlroy held off Thomas Bjorn to take the BMW PGA Championship – his first tournament win in 18 months.

And then at Royal Liverpool, McIlroy joined the illustrious club of Open champions with a dominant showing.

He became only the sixth man to win The Open going wire to wire, claiming his third major in the process and first Claret Jug. 

In so doing, he also replicated Woods and Jack Nicklaus in winning three of the four majors before the age of 25 – a feat since accomplished by Jordan Spieth as well. 

Back to back 66s to open up his week at Hoylake did the damage, but he had to hold off a charging Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler on the final Sunday to secure the title. 

Pretty in pink as he greeted his mother on the final green, McIlroy became the second Northern Irishman to win The Open in four years after Darren Clarke’s victory at Royal St George’s in 2011. 

A far cry from a year earlier, when McIlroy had labelled his own performance at the Open ‘brain dead.’ 

Major Misses

McIlroy backed up the Open win at the PGA Championship at Oakmont later that same summer to take his major count to four. 

It appeared that plenty more were to come but in the subsequent four and a half years, the big ones have somehow managed to evade McIlroy. 

However, at The Open it is surely a question of when, not if, he claims a second Claret Jug. 

The struggles of pre-Hoylake are a thing of the past, and McIlroy is now in contention year in and year out on links courses. 

Injury kept him out in 2015, but since then he has never finished outside sixth at The Open.

That sixth-place finish came in 2016 at Royal Troon – although that edition is obviously remembered for the top two of Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson with the rest of the field playing a different tournament entirely. 

In 2017 at Royal Birkdale a bad first round – five over after the first six holes – cost him but he came storming back and a Sunday 67 earned him a tie for fourth as Spieth took top honours. 

And then last year at Carnoustie McIlroy was consistent rather than compelling with rounds of 69, 69, 70, 70 earning him a tie for second.

He was however tied for the lead on the back nine on Sunday before Francesco Molinari pulled away. 

Clearly a second Open is not far away for McIlroy. He appears to have cracked the code and what better place for McIlroy to cement his legacy than Portrush this summer?