McElroy heads West in footsteps of hero Rory

BALLYMENA teenager Dermot McElroy ticks all the boxes as he pitches up at County Sligo today bidding to become the youngest winner of the West of Ireland Championship since Rory McIlroy.

Boy wonder McIlroy proved he was a unique talent when he won as a 15-year-old in 2005 and then retained the title the following year.

But Irish amateur golf believes it may have found its next big star in 17-year old McElroy, who has quickly made a name for himself at home and abroad.

While McIlroy left school at 16, the bespectacled McElroy put away the books last September to concentrate on building a future in the game after a splendid season in both the boys’ and senior ranks.

A second round loser on his debut in the West, he was beaten by Alan Dunbar in the North of Ireland final at Royal Portrush last July but went on to reach the quarter-finals of the British Boys’ Championship before romping to an impressive seven-stroke win in the Irish Boys’ Close in Dungarvan.

He’s been even more impressive so far this year, finishing third in the European Nations Cup at Sotogrande, Spain, before smashing the course record at Copt Heath near Birmingham last week with a 10-under-par final round 61 that lifted him to fourth place in the prestigious Peter McEvoy Trophy.

It was the kind of round he’d seen as a 12-year-old, having walked every hole with McIlroy the day he shot a course record 11-under 61 at Royal Portrush in qualifying for the 2005 North of Ireland Championship.

Ironically, Peter McEvoy was head of the Walker Cup selectors that year and later admitted that he made a major boob by overlooking McIlroy for a place in the side that lost by a point in Chicago.

But the R&A men are determined not to make the same mistake again and are see McElroy as a potential member of the side to face the United States at Royal Aberdeen in September.

This is all news to McElroy, a quiet lad who prefers to let his clubs do the talking. But he was amused to learn that he has also been installed by bookmaker’s Paddy Power as the clear 7-1 favourite for the West ahead of Paul Cutler, Luke Lennox and Dunbar.

A straight-hitter with a sensational short game, McElroy is currently weighing up a series of scholarship offers from the US but admits he’s in no hurry to make a decision.

“There are plenty of offers but it’s a big decision so I’ll not rush it,” he said before reflecting on his sensational 61 at Copt Heath.

“I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “I shot a two-over 73 that morning, played rubbish. I can’t say what happened. Something just clicked. Highlights? It was just 10 birdies, I hit a lot of good shots.”

He makes no secret of the fact that he’s a big McIlroy fan — “He’s just class”, he said.

But while he’s modest about his own abilities, defending West of Ireland champion Rory Leonard was “impressed” by what he saw whey they played on the Irish team in Sotogrande last month.

“I don’t know if he is quite in Rory’s league but he’s good,” Leonard said. “I didn’t know him before but he hit it very straight and very long too. And he has a very good short game.

“I am sure he will be one of the players to beat this week and I know he has been playing in Senior events, especially in the North, since he was about 15. He’s very, very good. No doubt about it.”

A field of 150 will tee it up in the first of two strokeplay qualifying rounds today with the leading 64 making it into the first round of matchplay combat on Sunday morning.

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