Rory McIlroy was a 17-year-old amateur when he first played in Australia. Nearly a decade on, he sits down with Australian Golf Digest to reflect on his meteoric rise, how visits Down Under have helped his career – and when he plans to return. 

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.Rory McIlroy“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.

Rory McIlroy

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.”

Rory McIlroy
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.”

Rory McIlroyGreen Jacket Dreams
McIlroy entered the lobby of golf legends with three out of the four Major trophies following his Claret Jug victory at Hoylake.

But the day McIlroy finally wins Augusta National’s coveted green jacket, he will join a very special club in golf’s history, in which the only members are Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

“A career Grand Slam would be a great achievement, but it will only come if I remain patient and take each Major as it comes.”

It would be sentimental for a number of reasons. Firstly, McIlroy would become the first golfer from Northern Ireland to win The Masters. Perhaps more importantly, however, the scar tissue from his meltdown in 2011 – where he started the final round with a four-shot lead but crashed out with a disastrous 80 – would be completely healed. Although he earned redemption two months later by setting 11 US Open scoring records during his eight-shot victory at Congressional, McIlroy still yearns for the green jacket. “The Masters is the one remaining Major I’ve yet to claim, (so) it is really important for me to win,” says McIlroy.

“I’m keen to have my own green jacket, (but) I don’t feel there’s any great urgency; my record at Augusta is very good – lone fourth last year was my best finish – and I’ve got plenty of years ahead of me to secure a Masters win.”Rory McIlroyThe Year Of Rory
Although the charismatic superstar preaches patience, this year is going to one of his biggest – on and off the course.

“2016 is definitely going to be a significant golfing year for me,” says McIlroy. “I’m very keen to bag a Major or two, get my hands on an Olympic Gold (medal) and be on the winning Ryder Cup side.

“So I must be careful to pace myself throughout the year and be fully fit – mentally and physically – to give myself the best chance to compete.

Add in a potential wedding and it is going to be a whirlwind 12 months. In December, speculation was rife McIlroy had proposed to girlfriend Erica Stoll – a former PGA of America employee – during a getaway to Paris. It was confirmed when Stoll was photographed with an engagement ring on her left hand at a fundraiser with McIlroy.

Rory McIlroyAn Old Head On Young Shoulders
For a child prodigy so used to success, McIlroy’s handling of adversity has many predicting a career with longevity; certainly one that will deliver more Majors. From his capitulation at Augusta nearly five years ago, to a troublesome year in 2013, McIlroy has passed tests of his resolve with flying colours.

“We all need to learn from wild over-par scores, losses and disappointments,” he says. “How would we improve otherwise?”

Since his first significant win at the world under-10s championship in Florida, McIlroy knew every time he teed up in a tournament that winning was a probable outcome, as long as he prepared. “I’d worked very hard as a kid, and to win the world under-10s was wonderful for my self-belief and confidence.”

So when it came time for a golfer who had won every major amateur event in Ireland and Europe to play in Australia for the first time, McIlroy probably thought his only challenger would be then reigning US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy.

The Junior Ryder Cup winner wouldn’t have pictured himself finishing 21 shots adrift of eventual champion John Senden.

But would McIlroy change a thing? What advice would he give to that 17-year-old with his shoulders slouched in the scoring hut at Royal Sydney?

“Go out and do exactly the same thing.”

Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy On…

The perks of the job: “There are lots of great perks, such as getting to travel where and when I want and have my parents at events. But I considerer myself very lucky – at this stage in my career – to be able to give something back. I started my Rory Foundation a couple of years ago and rarely do I enjoy a better feeling than seeing some of the great work being done by children’s charities I support.”

Tiger Woods’ pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 Majors: “I don’t think I’m really one for setting career goals. It works for some, and may motivate them to have solid targets or another’s career achievements to follow. For me, golf’s just such a long career – possibly 20 years or more these days – that I can’t imagine what I’d like to achieve by the end of it. My intention is to try and stay fit, adapt with golf’s ever-evolving technology and keep putting a few trophies in the cabinet each year.”

When an elite professional golf career became a reality: “My Silver Medal for leading amateur at the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie was the highlight of my amateur career. I was 17 and beginning to seriously believe I could hold my own with the best in the game.”