Rory McIlroy's 61 at Portrush is maybe the most talked-about round by an amateur. Playing partner Stephen Crowe had the best seat in the house
There was already plenty of hype about Rory McIlroy. Earlier in 2005 he had become the youngest winner of both the West of Ireland and the Irish Close – but what he did in ‘The North’ on Tuesday July 5 will always live long in golfing folklore.
It might have been quite benign, around 16 degrees with maybe a one-club wind, but it was still set up for a major amateur tournament and what happened that day will continue to be discussed throughout the week when the Open Championship comes to town.
Out in 33, back in 28, 61 shots around Royal Portrush’s Dunluce Links. McIlroy finished with five straight birdies.
Dunmurry’s Stephen Crowe, along with Cork’s Aaron O’Callaghan, was playing with McIlroy that day and, 14 years on, he still looks back on the day as being something very special.
“Everyone’s capable of shooting a low one but not a 61, that’s unheard of in amateur golf. You’re generally trying to battle the elements and shoot level par.”
McIlroy and Crowe had both shot 71s around the Valley Course and while McIlroy, who had a mate on the bag and his dad and a couple of uncles supporting him, was already the superstar of the Irish amateur scene, there was little to suggest that one of the greatest ever rounds was on the cards.
He missed a six-footer at the opening hole before finding the green at the next with a 6-iron for a two-putt birdie.
Another birdie came at the short 6th and he arrived at the par-5 9th tee – this year it will play as the 11th due to the introduction of the two new holes – at 2-under. He found the green with a wedge for another two-putt birdie.
“No way did you think he was going to shoot 61. He birdied 9, eagled 10 and birdied 11 and from nowhere he was 6-under,” said Crowe.
“Then you thought something could happen here. If someone shot in the mid 60s in amateur golf, particularly on a links course and in Ireland, then it was pretty uncommon. Then the crowds started to get a bit bigger.
“I wasn’t going to make the cut but we needed marshals for those last few holes as everyone was coming out to watch Rory. He somehow birdied Calamity and was nine under after 16 and you sort of thought I’m sure he’ll take a couple of pars here at the last two.”
Portrush’s head pro since 1999 Gary McNeill remembers McIlroy taking himself away from everyone on the 17th tee and having a few practice swings to himself while McIlroy has since said that he was now thinking too much about it. The previous course best was 64 so two pars would now be enough.
“I didn’t care if it was 63 or 62 or 61 – I just wanted to be the one who had the course record. And that almost freed me up a bit, I had done my job and I could enjoy the last few holes.”
Playing partner Crowe remembers the finish clearly.
“He didn’t take his foot off the pedal, he didn’t miss a shot the last two holes. He hit driver and a long iron to the par-5 17th. He always hit it long even for the size of him, he only put on muscle after he turned pro and he was always aggressive. He wouldn’t shy away from a shot and he had the belief that he was going to pull it off.
“The old last was a tough tee shot with lots of bunkers but he stayed aggressive, found the fairway and hit an 8-iron into the middle of the green and then holed about a 20-footer.
“That was the most impressive thing, how he kept things going. Lots of us wouldn’t have had the mindset to shoot that sort of score but he did.”
The news quickly filtered through to the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond and Darren Clarke was soon texting the teenager.
Portrush local Graeme McDowell, who had been on tour since 2002, remembers the 61 very clearly.
“You hear about the next great thing. We’ve got this kid he’s playing at +7 and blah, blah, blah, whatever, you know. Then he shot 61 in the first round of the qualifying for the North of Ireland, and I’m like, really? OK. Hold on. Now I’ve got to pay a little more attention to this.
“That was probably the first time that I realised that we had something pretty special on our hands from the point of view of Irish golf and Northern Irish golf.”
A month ago McIlroy shot another 61 to close out the Canadian Open, he also shot the same number on the Saturday at Quail Hollow in 2015 – he won both tournaments by seven.
And the memories of that Tuesday in Antrim came flooding back in Canada.
“When you play you get into stretches like this and you do get into some sort of flow, that flow state or in the zone or whatever anyone wants to call it. I definitely got into that a little bit at the start of the back nine. It was the same that day at Portrush all those years ago, it was the first time I had ever experienced it.
“I was a 16-year-old and I was six under par through 13 and birdied the last five to shoot 11. It’s almost like you’re out of your own body and looking at yourself play. For some times today that’s how it felt.”
In the interim McIlroy has picked up four majors in among his 25 victories as a pro and he’s spent 95 weeks of his life as the World No. 1 but not a lot has changed in terms of McIlroy the person. He’s one of the good guys these days, back as he was in 2005.
“I always got on well with Rory and he was always a good laugh to be around. He might have been the best player in Ireland by a street but you would never feel intimidated playing with him as he was such a good guy,” Crowe remembers.
“He had just won the West of Ireland and the Irish Close, so two senior championships that year, and The North, coming from Ulster, was probably the one he wanted the most, that was our home championship.
“But he never did win it, sometimes it clashed with the European Amateur Team Championship. I think he lost in maybe the third round in 2005, he never went that far in it. My brother Darren actually won it the following year and they would have played for Ireland quite a bit.”
These days Crowe plays more social golf but has got back down to scratch.
“People will ask if I know Rory so I throw it in there that I was playing with him that and straightaway everyone knows about that round wherever you are in the world. If he had done it somewhere else it might not have been the big news that it was but to do it at Portrush was special. The Open was the week after at St Andrews and they were talking about the 61 on the BBC.”