The crowd wasthick around the practice green at Carnoustie last Saturday morning, whichshould've been a tip-off that something was up. Yet Rory McIlroy of NorthernIreland, a slight 18-year-old whose freckled, cherubic cheeks make him lookmore like 14, eased past a pair of security guards and onto the practice areawith the confidence of a veteran pro, dropped a couple of balls, then casuallybegan stroking putts toward a cup near the one being used by Tiger Woods. ¬∂There was no exchange of pleasantries, eye contact or backward glances byWoods, who was hard at work in his office and apparently didn't notice thepride of Holywood, a town of about 12,000 near Belfast. That made Tiger aboutthe 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 claimedby Woods in 1996. McIlroy stole the show in the opening round when he shot athree-under 68--a stroke lower than Tiger--and emerged as the only player inthe field without a bogey on his card.
If nothing else,the moment on the practice green was symbolic. McIlroy is at the leading edgeof a generation of golfers who, since childhood, have been inspired by andidolize Tiger Woods. Nicklaus, Watson, Norman--they're simply names in ahistory book to this new wave of players. To them, there has been only onedominating force in the game, and that is Tiger. Soon, Woods can look forwardto being challenged by the very youngsters he brought to the game. McIlroy wasseven when Woods won his third straight U.S. Amateur. "After that it wasTiger, Tiger, Tiger," he says. "Tiger has been the one big influence inmy golfing life."
Though only 5'9'', McIlroy carries a big stick. There's a bounce in his step, almost aswagger, and don't blink or you'll miss his next shot. That, plus his curlybrown hair and look-at-me taste in clothes, brings to mind a young LannyWadkins. "I love the way he makes everything look so easy," saysthree-time Open champ Nick Faldo, one of McIlroy's mentors. "He tees it up,sees the shot and just goes."
The most notableshot of McIlroy's opening round was a 230-yard two-iron through the wind to the18th 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 itwas the memory of the standing ovation that followed when he walked to thescorer'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 wasfantastic."
The Open has aknack for introducing great young international players to the world. Ernie Els(1992) and Justin Rose and Sergio García ('98) first made a mark at thistournament. Now it's McIlroy, a two-time winner of the Irish Amateur and thereigning European Amateur champion. Veteran PGA Tour pro Arron Oberholser waspaired with McIlroy in the third round and saw him rally from a sloppy frontside to salvage a 73. "Rory is going to be on plenty of Ryder Cupteams," the 32-year-old Oberholser says. "He's that good. I've playedwith other great young players--Ryan Moore, Tiger when he was in college, MattKuchar, Joel Kribel. Rory is ready to turn pro right now. He doesn't have anyweak spots. He's miles and miles ahead of where I was at 18."
A telling shot inthat round came at the par-3 8th hole, where McIlroy missed the green to theright and was on a steep downslope. "He grabbed a lofted club, whichshocked me," Oberholser said. "I would've bumped something into thehill, but Rory slipped under it and lofted it onto the green and rolled it upthere to about a foot. I went, Whoa, that's not an amateur shot; that's abest-player-in-the-world shot. I was really impressed."
McIlroy plans toturn pro in September, after playing in the Walker Cup, the amateur version ofthe Ryder Cup. Then he'll try to land a few sponsors' exemptions into events inEurope before trying to earn a European tour card at qualifying school. Twoyears ago McIlroy nearly accepted a scholarship to East Tennessee State, mostlyso he could play during the winter. "I wasn't really that keen on theschool part," he says, "so I decided to stay home."
He carries aplus-six (six under par) handicap at his home course, Holywood Golf Club, apar-69 of 6,100 yards that isn't much of a test for him anymore. The clubdoesn't have a practice range, so to stay sharp he plays three balls duringrounds there. His parents bought a synthetic practice green so he can work onhis short game at home.
On Saturday thecrowd at the half-full grandstand at 18--many of the fans were out on thecourse with Tiger--gave McIlroy a nice round of applause as he walked off thegreen, but as he passed the nearby Carnoustie Links Hotel, the fans who filledbalconies and hung from open windows were more raucous, putting down theirdrinks to clap and cheer. "Well done, Rory!" came from a dozenwindows.
McIlroy looked up,smiled and waved to acknowledge their calls. Well done, yes. But there's moreto come.
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McIlroy was seven when Woods won his third straightU.S. Amateur. "After that it was TIGER, TIGER, TIGER," he says."Tiger has been the one big influence in my golfing life."
McIlroy grabbed the spotlight with a 68 on Thursday, the day's only bogey-freeround.
McIlroy found trouble at 9 on Friday but rallied to make the cut.