In 2011, McIlroy was still four days short of his 20th birthday when he shot a sensational final round of 62 to emerge winner at Quail Hollow by four shots from Phil Mickelson. Last year, he finished in a tie with Rickie Fowler and DA Points before losing to a birdie by the former at the first tie hole. Even then, he had another reason to love the venue given that second place clinched leadership of the world rankings for the first time.
McIlroy’s victory two years ago, shooting 62 on the final day, remains one of the most remarkable in recent years on the US circuit. Nevertheless, he insisted the most important shot he made happened two days previously.
A couple of shots over the cut line with three holes to play on the Friday, he fearlessly hit a four-iron from 206 yards into the breeze to six feet for an eagle and made the cut. His experienced caddie, JP Fitzgerald, who had worked for some of the game’s finest including Ernie Els, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley, declared it the finest golf shot he had ever witnessed.
McIlroy’s win capped a big Sunday for two of golf’s brightest young stars. Earlier in the day, 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa became the first player on a major tour to shoot 58 with victory on the Japan Golf Tour. A year later another youngster, Rickie Fowler, captured the headlines at Quail Hollow.
It still appears to be a young man’s sport today, given the impression the 14 year-old Chinese Guam Gianlang made at the Masters and again in New Orleans at the weekend.
And that’s not all. Yet another young man McIlroy must keep a wary eye is Billy Horschel, who followed up a series of near misses before crossing the line in front in the weekend’s Zurich Classic at New Orleans.
McIlroy and Horschel were involved in a couple of fractious Walker Cup confrontations at Royal Co Down in 2007 after which Rory had some harsh words to say about his volatile opponent.
Pádraig Harrington also tees it up at Quail Hollow, anxious for the kind of result that would move him from 56th into golf’s top 50, while the presence of Lee Westwood, Nicolas Colsaerts, Sergio Garcia, Martin Kaymer and, of course, McIlroy underlines the European influence in States on the week before the Tournament Players Championship at Sawgrass.
The Irish golfers in the field for the China Open in Tianjin are Peter Lawrie, Michael Hoey, Damien McGrane, Paul McGinley and Gareth Maybin.