EXCLUSIVE BY EVIN PRIEST
Change is a concept Rory McIlroy has become accustomed to.
Just remind him of his 72-hole total from his Australian Open debut at Royal Sydney in 2006.
“Was I really that much over par!?”
Yes, Rory. You shot 74-74-76-77 for a 13-over total. You finished in a tie for 59th.
“The conditions must have been tough,” McIlroy laughs.
“I’m sure I tried to birdie the hardest holes and probably took on every difficult pin – regardless of the hazards.”
Ten years have passed since that first visit to Australia. From golf equipment to personal wealth, bodyfat percentage to Major victories, a lot has changed for Rory McIlroy. And though it’s difficult to imagine a time when the former world No.1 (and No.3 at the time of writing) wasn’t an international superstar, the man himself has no trouble.
“In 2006, not a soul in the world knew who I was,” the Northern Irishman recalls about his maiden voyage to Sydney.
Then 17, McIlroy sported long, black curly locks and didn’t possess the chiselled frame now regularly splashed across covers of men’s fitness magazines.
But that isn’t why Australian golf fans didn’t recognise a teenage amateur from Holywood, Belfast.
Firstly, he was worth approximately $600 million less than he is now. He hadn’t won four Major championships, 11 US PGA Tour titles and 12 European Tour events. He hadn’t become engaged (and later separated) to Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, and he was still several months away from claiming low-amateur honours at the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie.
Yet it didn’t stop Australians lending themselves to McIlroy, who hasn’t forgotten the hospitality he was shown in Sydney.
“Even back in 2006, I was made to feel really welcome and I felt very relaxed on and off the course,” he says.
“I could dwell on the golf, the amazing sights and the great atmosphere in Sydney, but what keeps me coming back is the welcome I always receive. There’s absolutely no doubt I’ll be back in Australia in the near future.”
And it isn’t hard to see why the two-time US PGA Tour Player of the Year loves competing in our national championship following his dramatic victory in 2013, where he partnered Adam Scott in the final group before eventually denying him a rare Aussie triple crown.
Although the 26-year-old admits he didn’t like to win by virtue of then-green jacket holder Scott bogeying Royal Sydney’s 18th, lifting the Stonehaven Cup catapulted McIlroy to his best year on the course.
“It’s safe to say that my win at Royal Sydney was the high point of 2013,” says McIlroy.
“It gave me a lot of confidence and belief going into the 2014 season. I was able to concentrate on the strong and positive parts of my game and apply these as the year progressed.”
The triumph followed a tumultuous period for McIlroy, during which he appeared to struggle adapting to Nike equipment after leaving long-time sponsor Titleist. He failed to register a win on the US PGA Tour and sensationally withdrew from the Honda Classic.
The only highlight of his Major season was a top-10 finish at the US PGA Championship, among mediocre finishes at The Masters (T25) and US Open (T41), as well as a missed cut at the British Open.
But with the Nike equipment – and the pressure of its reported $US200 million, 10-year endorsement deal – under control, McIlroy had a career-defining season in 2014. He finished inside the top-10 in 12 of the 17 US PGA Tour events he entered, claimed his first WGC title and returned to the world No.1 ranking.
He won the US PGA Championship at Valhalla, but it was his British Open triumph at Royal Liverpool that was McIlroy’s personal highlight – not just for the year, but his entire career.
“The 2011 US Open elevated me into golf’s record books, but what stands out for me still is my Open Championship win at Hoylake,” says McIlroy.
“The Open Championship is my home Major, so winning it, with my mum walking out to the 18th green to congratulate me, was very special.”
Months later, McIlroy returned to Sydney to defend his Australian Open title as the odds-on favourite, following a truly sensational year on the course.
But he was forced to watch as golf’s new kid on the block – Jordan Spieth – cruised to a six-shot win at The Australian Golf Club, before claiming the first two Majors of 2015.
Knowing how valuable a win Down Under can be for confidence and schedule momentum, McIlroy revealed exclusively to Australian Golf Digest he is eager to return to the Australian Open, possibly as early as 2017.
“I feel I’m missing a great event when I don’t get to play the Australian Open,” says McIlroy.
“My 2016 schedule is completely jammed, but after that I’d like to start thinking about the Australian Open again.
“I’ve said it many times before – Australian Open courses are simply among the best in the world to play.
“They are also, without exception, tough but fair and I think I enjoy them because they can feel a lot like (British) links courses.”
• For the full story, check out the February edition of Australian Golf Digest – ON SALE NOW!