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Reliving Rory McIlroy’s ‘out-of-body’ Royal Portrush 61 as Open looms

As Rory McIlroy tees off in the tournament he placed on a pedestal the moment Royal Portrush was reconfirmed as an Open Championship venue, Aaron O’Callaghan will look on from North Carolina with memories flooding back. Stephen Crowe will already have been and gone from the 148th Open’s practice rounds.

The trio are intrinsically linked by a round at Portrush that made golfing history, even though the past 14 years have taken McIlroy, Crowe and O’Callaghan in different directions. That they had existing friendship through prominent amateur golf events – with McIlroy, the youngest, always the star man – makes the story even more endearing. Mutual affection remains. Mention Crowe and O’Callaghan and it will draw a broad McIlroy smile.

McIlroy’s 61 at Portrush in the second qualifying round of the 2005 North of Ireland Championship – on 12 July, to be precise – set a record that technically, owing to recent redesign of the course, cannot be matched or surpassed. McIlroy regards it as his first “out-of-body” golfing experience, aged just 16. He insisted at the time this was his first ever bogey-free competitive round. Less striking is the admission that in 2019 he can still recall every shot. When the now four-times major winner lost in the match-play segment of that competition, 3&1 to Andrew Pitcher, McIlroy wasn’t upset. “I was still on such a high from the 61 that I think I shrugged my shoulders a little bit,” he recalls.

They were a tight-knit group. Harry Diamond, McIlroy’s current caddie and lifelong best friend, was delighted with level par as the 61 unfolded a few groups behind him. Ricky McCormick, now the club professional at Holywood Golf Club, was McIlroy’s caddie for the week. O’Callaghan says: “About an hour after we were done, Rory came up to me laughing: ‘Aaron, you’re not going to believe this. Ricky has just been talking about your putting. He wants to get that putter you have because you putt so well. Here’s me shooting 61. He doesn’t want any of my clubs.’”

At the welcoming Dunmurry Golf Club on the outskirts of Belfast, Crowe’s name – and those of his family – feature prominently on rolls of honour. Stephen entered his family construction business aged 18, maintaining a trophy-laden amateur career thereafter. His first encounter with McIlroy came in 2003; soon, this 14-year-old from Holywood was alongside Crowe in under-21 teams.

“He was always confident, not cocky but confident in his play,” Crowe, now 36, says. “He would always take the shot on. He fitted in perfectly because he was used to playing with older guys. I am sure he is still the same now, good craic and always enjoying a laugh.

“The first thing you noticed was a 14-year-old who was better than us. You knew he had a special talent. The banter was always great between us but we were probably wondering: ‘Who is this little so-and-so making us look ordinary?’ He bounced round the golf course; you still see that now when he is going well.”

Crowe matched McIlroy’s 71 on day one of the North of Ireland, at Portrush’s Valley course. “He came into that event as the best player in Ireland,” Crowe says. Still, even he had no inkling of what was to transpire on day two on the Dunluce Links.

“He was two under after eight, steady enough but nothing special,” Crowe explains. “Then he went birdie-eagle-birdie and all of a sudden we were standing on the 11th tee and he was six under from nowhere. At that stage you start to think something special might happen because he had momentum.

“The crowds were getting bigger so word was filtering back but Rory always had a crowd anyway. Even as a teenager, no matter where he played, he had a crowd because everyone wanted to watch him and knew who he was. That had never happened to an amateur until he came on the scene.”

O’Callaghan, an Ireland teammate of McIlroy, is self-effacing now when recalling his emotion having outscored him on the first day. “I had played with him multiple times and I knew he was an amazing player but I came away telling myself: ‘He can’t be that good if I just beat him.’ I was feeling pretty good about myself,” says the Cork man. On an overcast second day, with very little wind, McIlroy left O’Callaghan and others grasping for air.

“What was distinctive was walking along the 11th, Stevie turns to me and says: ‘Rory is playing great, do you know how many under he is?’” O’Callaghan says. “At the time it didn’t really register with me but he was already five under. It was cruise control for him, stress-free golf, no need for great shots from the rough.

“That chat with Stevie got my attention. The more the people appeared, the better he got. It was very obvious that he was a show‑off, almost, where he thrived on the energy of the people. By the time we got to 17 it felt, to me, like the whole country was out there; I had never seen that many people at an amateur event.”

McIlroy made birdies at his last five holes before signing for 61. Portrush’s record had been smashed by three. “It’s amateur golf; nobody shot those scores, especially in Ireland because of where you are playing,” says Crowe. There were moments worthy of resonance. Crowe distinctly remembers the towering high draw of a McIlroy iron into Portrush’s signature Calamity hole – the 14th, now 16th – “that you can only dream of hitting”. On 17, O’Callaghan was spellbound by McIlroy’s focus as an approach finished 25ft from the hole. “You could see the look in his eye. That putt was going in before he reached the green. At that point I thought: ‘Holy shit, this is some round.’”

In 2006, McIlroy and O’Callaghan were roommates in Italy as the former claimed the European Individual Championship and with it an Open debut for the following year. They went separate ways thereafter, with O’Callaghan bound for college in the United States. He is now a successful coach at Wake Forest University. “I felt like I was a pretty good player but I was comparing myself to Rory,” O’Callaghan says. “I guess I didn’t realise how good he was, that he was playing to a different standard. Really what I should have been thinking was: ‘If I can even get close to this guy then I can probably play this game for a lot of money.’ Instead when you aren’t beating a kid three years younger than you, it’s a hit to the confidence.”

In 2008, Crowe last encountered McIlroy just months after he had turned professional. “I always said if Rory didn’t make it, nobody would,” Crowe says. “He was a level above so many guys.” Back where he etched an indelible mark in history, McIlroy is seeking to write another fairytale.