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Irish Open: Rory McIlroy's amazing march back to where it all began

By Steven Beacom

Eight years ago, Rory McIlroy drove out of the gates at the Royal County Down Golf Club disappointed and annoyed, having been part of a losing Great Britain and Ireland team to the USA in the 2007 Walker Cup.

At the time, apart from in his own sport in which he had gained a reputation for being a promising talent, he was virtually unknown.

It was his last event as an amateur.

Fast forward to the present day and walking around the same spectacular course he is the best golfer on the planet with four Majors to his name, has countless other titles, more money than he will ever spend and his status has rocketed to the superstar variety.

The 26-year-old from Holywood has become so big and so successful that his Foundation - the charitable arm of his global brand - is hosting this year's Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and he has attracted huge names like Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia and Ernie Els to play in his home county and home country.

On Tuesday night at a fundraising event for the Cancer Fund for Children at Daisy Lodge, just outside Newcastle, McIlroy spoke about the importance of taking time out to realise how far he had come.

Yesterday at his packed press conference, with standing room only, there was a clear illustration of the vast distance he has travelled since the last tournament he played at Royal County Down to the present one, which began early this morning.

"I have a lot of memories from that Walker Cup (in 2007). It was a good week, good weather. The course was in phenomenal shape and it was the last two days I played as an amateur," he recalled, following 18 holes in yesterday's pro-am, as the rain lashed down outside.

"There was an after tournament dinner where everyone was supposed to get together but I was heading off to the Oxfordshire Golf Club to compete in the first stage of Q-School, so my emotions turned straight to trying to get my Tour card.

"At that time, not being a part of a winning team, I was probably driving out of here thinking, why did I stay amateur for two days of golf, but looking back, it was one of the best experiences I had. 

"And not just in terms of the golf but the people that you meet and the friendships you make and the friendships you keep.  It's something that you don't appreciate then but whenever you move on a few years, that stuff is just as important. 

"So from that point to eight years on, and driving back in again, it's a little different."

And then some.

One of the friends he made at the Walker Cup was Fowler, who he plays alongside today and tomorrow with two-time Major champion Martin Kaymer making up a mighty impressive trio.

It will be interesting how they, and the rest of a top class field, cope with the course and the weather. McIlroy should be at an advantage given that he enjoys playing the famous links when he is home and not winning tournaments across the globe.

McIlroy, currently The Open and US PGA champion, said: "Since that Walker Cup, I've got to know the course even better, because I come down here at 7pm at night.

"The nights are so long here, it stays light until half 10, and I can play nine holes and just carry my own clubs, walk around and hit a few balls. It really gets me back into links golf mode. I did loads of preparation here before The Scottish Open and The Open last year, and it definitely helped.

"It's a tough course. And I think it will really reward a smart golfer this week. It's like a game of chess out here. You've just got to play your positions and you've got to plot your way along."

McIlroy admitted before becoming so involved in this year's Irish Open he didn't know how much work and planning went into organising a tournament. He has certainly added much to an event that was sparked into life at Royal Portrush in 2012 after a difficult few years.

Clearly buoyed by Royal County Down selling out for all four days, there was more than a touch of Northern Ireland national pride when McIlroy stated: "It makes me proud that we can get some of the best players in the world and on one of the best golf courses in the world and showcase just what a great country this is. 

"And you could see in the pro-am with the weather not too good, there were still thousands and thousands of people out there supporting us. It's absolutely phenomenal. To be able to bring these guys here and show them how good a place it is, it makes me very proud to be where I'm from."

In turn, the people here are proud of McIlroy, who will donate his prize money from this week to his Foundation and the Daisy Lodge facility.

Prior to McIlroy speaking, South African great Ernie Els, who has also won four Majors, predicted the Ulsterman to win at least 10 more Majors in the next 20 years.

You get the feeling Rory wants more than that. Don't rule it out. After all, this Holywood star may have come a long way already, but he's not finished yet.

Belfast Telegraph

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