On May 7, 2006, three days after his 17th birthday, Rory McIlroy completed his first competitive experience of Royal Lytham. Among other things, it had meant stepping onto a significantly bigger stage after retaining the West of Ireland Championship at Rosses Point a month previously.
He would have got into a play-off for the Lytham Trophy that year, but for three-putting the final green in a closing round of 71. And he finished third once more in 2007, this time having relinquished a challenging position over the difficult closing holes.
Employing a high draw, McIlroy was essentially a one-dimensional player at that stage, but wonderful talent and competitive maturity made him superior to the majority of his teenage rivals. “Though most of my amateur wins were on links courses, the weather was all fairly calm,” he admitted. “I just play better and my game is more suited to calm conditions.”
So, with no apparent need to change his technique, he seemed to cope seamlessly with the transition to professional ranks, even when being tied third behind Louis Oosthuizen in the Open Championship at St Andrews in 2010. After an opening 63, a potentially crushing second-round of 80 in foul weather was put down to lack of experience, especially when he carded 137 for the closing 36 holes.
But Royal St George's last July represented a jolting reality check. Only a few weeks after breaking a string of records en route to victory in the US Open at Congressional, being made to struggle in very different conditions left him decidedly ill at ease.
The dominance of long-time mentor Darren Clarke made him realise the limitations of his technique. “This sort of golf suits Darren's game,” he said. “He's grown up on links, and he likes to play different shots. It's the sort of week where, yeah, you've got to just manage your game very well, and he's good at doing that, hitting different shots and changing the trajectory.”
After weekend rounds of 74 and 73 had consigned McIlroy to a share of 25th place, frustration finally broke through. “I'm not a fan of golf tournaments where the outcome is dictated so much by the weather,” he said. But wouldn't he have to adapt, if he were to become a serious challenger for the Open? “It's either that or just wait for a year when the weather is nice,” he replied bleakly. “My game is suited for basically every golf course and most conditions, but these conditions I just don't enjoy playing in really. That's the bottom line. It's not my sort of golf. I'd rather play when it's 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind.”
Of course Clarke didn't grow up on links. He was a product of the parkland terrain of Dungannon and was 15 before having his first competitive outing at Royal Portrush. By the end of his teens, however, he had equipped himself with a masterly links technique whereby he could move the ball comfortably both ways and employ a low trajectory when he wanted to cheat the wind.
A year on from Clarke's splendid triumph, McIlroy's Sandwich outburst can now be put down to immaturity. On being exposed to another side of championship golf at the highest level, it must have hurt him to discover how much he still had to learn.
Before heading to Holywood GC for a charity event, he was at Lytham last Thursday and Friday morning with his coach, Michael Bannon (pictured), and bagman, JP Fitzgerald, who caddied for Paul McGinley when he was tied 54th behind David Duval in Lytham's last Open in 2001. And recent events at Portrush would suggest a new-found acceptance of what promises to be a test even more searching than at Sandwich, and in similarly hostile conditions.
Even a moderate return on the greens in the Irish Open would have made him a serious challenger. Running at about 10 on the Stimpmeter, however, they were slow by American standards and McIlroy clearly struggled with his pace over the four rounds.
His approach to Lytham has been quite revealing. “There's a lot of tee-shots that you have to hit left-to-right, so my objective is to make sure my fade is in good order,” he said. “And I've got to have the rest of my game ready to go. I want to become a better wind player and obviously the only way I'm going to do that is by playing in wind. In that regard, the Irish Open was a great week.”
The Lytham Trophy and last Thursday's visit will have given him a feeling of the place as a competitive environment. But, as Padraig Harrington likes to point out, Major golf is largely a mental challenge.