The crowd was
thick around the practice green at Carnoustie last Saturday morning, which
should've been a tip-off that something was up. Yet Rory McIlroy of Northern
Ireland, a slight 18-year-old whose freckled, cherubic cheeks make him look
more like 14, eased past a pair of security guards and onto the practice area
with the confidence of a veteran pro, dropped a couple of balls, then casually
began stroking putts toward a cup near the one being used by Tiger Woods. �
There was no exchange of pleasantries, eye contact or backward glances by
Woods, who was hard at work in his office and apparently didn't notice the
pride of Holywood, a town of about 12,000 near Belfast. That made Tiger about
the only person at the British Open to miss McIlroy, who would finish 42nd
(with a five-over 289) to win the silver medal as low amateur, an award claimed
by Woods in 1996. McIlroy stole the show in the opening round when he shot a
three-under 68--a stroke lower than Tiger--and emerged as the only player in
the field without a bogey on his card.
If nothing else,
the moment on the practice green was symbolic. McIlroy is at the leading edge
of a generation of golfers who, since childhood, have been inspired by and
idolize Tiger Woods. Nicklaus, Watson, Norman--they're simply names in a
history book to this new wave of players. To them, there has been only one
dominating force in the game, and that is Tiger. Soon, Woods can look forward
to being challenged by the very youngsters he brought to the game. McIlroy was
seven when Woods won his third straight U.S. Amateur. "After that it was
Tiger, Tiger, Tiger," he says. "Tiger has been the one big influence in
my golfing life."
Though only 5'
9'', McIlroy carries a big stick. There's a bounce in his step, almost a
swagger, and don't blink or you'll miss his next shot. That, plus his curly
brown hair and look-at-me taste in clothes, brings to mind a young Lanny
Wadkins. "I love the way he makes everything look so easy," says
three-time Open champ Nick Faldo, one of McIlroy's mentors. "He tees it up,
sees the shot and just goes."
The most notable
shot of McIlroy's opening round was a 230-yard two-iron through the wind to the
18th green. He missed the birdie putt but still savored the approach, saying,
"If I had only one memory from the day, that would be it." Unless it
was the memory of the standing ovation that followed when he walked to the
scorer's tent. "It was as if a chill ran down the back of my spine,"
admitted McIlroy, who had never heard anything like it. "It was
The Open has a
knack for introducing great young international players to the world. Ernie Els
(1992) and Justin Rose and Sergio Garc�a ('98) first made a mark at this
tournament. Now it's McIlroy, a two-time winner of the Irish Amateur and the
reigning European Amateur champion. Veteran PGA Tour pro Arron Oberholser was
paired with McIlroy in the third round and saw him rally from a sloppy front
side to salvage a 73. "Rory is going to be on plenty of Ryder Cup
teams," the 32-year-old Oberholser says. "He's that good. I've played
with other great young players-- Ryan Moore, Tiger when he was in college, Matt
Kuchar, Joel Kribel. Rory is ready to turn pro right now. He doesn't have any
weak spots. He's miles and miles ahead of where I was at 18."
A telling shot in
that round came at the par-3 8th hole, where McIlroy missed the green to the
right and was on a steep downslope. "He grabbed a lofted club, which
shocked me," Oberholser said. "I would've bumped something into the
hill, but Rory slipped under it and lofted it onto the green and rolled it up
there to about a foot. I went, Whoa, that's not an amateur shot; that's a
best-player-in-the-world shot. I was really impressed."
McIlroy plans to
turn pro in September, after playing in the Walker Cup, the amateur version of
the Ryder Cup. Then he'll try to land a few sponsors' exemptions into events in
Europe before trying to earn a European tour card at qualifying school. Two
years ago McIlroy nearly accepted a scholarship to East Tennessee State, mostly
so he could play during the winter. "I wasn't really that keen on the
school part," he says, "so I decided to stay home."
He carries a
plus-six (six under par) handicap at his home course, Holywood Golf Club, a
par-69 of 6,100 yards that isn't much of a test for him anymore. The club
doesn't have a practice range, so to stay sharp he plays three balls during
rounds there. His parents bought a synthetic practice green so he can work on
his short game at home.
On Saturday the
crowd at the half-full grandstand at 18--many of the fans were out on the
course with Tiger--gave McIlroy a nice round of applause as he walked off the
green, but as he passed the nearby Carnoustie Links Hotel, the fans who filled
balconies and hung from open windows were more raucous, putting down their
drinks to clap and cheer. "Well done, Rory!" came from a dozen
McIlroy looked up,
smiled and waved to acknowledge their calls. Well done, yes. But there's more
Read Alan Shipnuck's Hot List at GOLF.com.