Commentary

McIlroy adds his name to storied list

Originally Published: July 15, 2010
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- The golf shop on the corner is a flip wedge from the 18th green of the Old Course and bears the name of two famous golfers, both of whom won major championships.

If Rory McIlroy is aware of the Auchterlonie brothers and their place in St. Andrews lore, he is as much a student of the game as he is of the Old Course -- where he's never failed to break 70.

Laurie Auchterlonie was the first player to break 80 in all four rounds in winning the 1902 U.S. Open at Chicago Golf Club. A decade earlier, brother Willie had won the Open Championship at Prestwick in 1893. Both lived in St. Andrews.

The latter victory was significant because Willie was just 21 years old and nobody since that win 117 years ago has been as young a winner of golf's oldest tournament.

McIlroy is just 21 himself, but he leads the Open Championship after he shot 63 on Thursday to match the low round in a major and the lowest ever during the first round of the Open.

For McIlroy, it was more recent history that he had on his mind when he got to the Road Hole, the difficult, par-4 17th, where he stiffed his approach to 3 feet -- setting up the possibility of a birdie-birdie finish for 62.

"I remember watching Tiger at the U.S. PGA in Tulsa [at Southern Hills in 2007], and he lipped out for 62," McIlroy said. "I started thinking to myself, 'If I can birdie this hole, I've got a chance of birdying the last.'"

He did birdie the last, but that came after his only slip of the day, the missed birdie putt at 17 that ultimately cost him a shot at a number that has never been shot in 150 years of majors.

"Yeah, it went through my mind that 62 would have been the lowest round in a major," said McIlroy, who shot a closing 62 to win his first PGA Tour event at the Quail Hollow Championship in May. "That's probably why I missed the putt."

Still, McIlroy became the 22nd player to shoot 63 in a major, a feat which now has occurred 24 times. Both Greg Norman and Vijay Singh have done it twice. It is the first time someone has shot 63 in a major since Woods narrowly missed shooting 62 at the 2007 PGA, the eighth time at the Open Championship but the first at St. Andrews since Paul Broadhurst in 1990.

"I was pulling for him on 17 because I had a feeling he'd birdie 18, and I thought to rewrite the record books would be pretty cool," said Lucas Glover, who played with McIlroy. "But he got a bad break on 17 with the lip out. But that's a heck of a round."

"It was a fantastic score," said two-time Open winner Padraig Harrington of Ireland, who could manage just a 73. "It was very impressive. Obviously he finished it off well, which is the hard thing when things are going so well. Puts him in a great position for the next three days. If he plays average the next two days, he'll still have a chance on Sunday."

McIlroy likened the round to a 61 he shot in his native Northern Ireland at Royal Portrush, where he shot the course record as a 16-year-old.

"I think this is probably the most special just because it's at St. Andrews and it's the Open Championship," McIlroy said. "I think the 61 was probably slightly better, if I'm honest. I don't know if it was because I was 16 or because to shoot 61 around Portrush back home was pretty nice.

"But this is definitely up there. It's nice to put my name [with] the few guys who have shot 63 in majors. It would have been lovely to shoot 62, but I can't really complain."

The score broke the Old Course record, which is due to a quirky bit of record keeping by the St. Andrews Links Trust, which manages the course. It has thrown out previous course records here due to course renovations.

That means Curtis Strange's 62 shot during the 1987 Alfred Dunhill Cup and Brian Davis's 62 shot during the 2003 Dunhill Links Championship were discarded.

A 64 by Bradley Dredge at the 2006 Dunhill, matched last year by Mikko Ilonen, stood as the record until McIlroy's seven-birdie, one-eagle effort in perfect conditions Thursday morning.

Regardless, McIlroy became the youngest to shoot 63 at a major and continued a trend of excellent play at the Old Course.

In six previous rounds played on the course during the European Tour's Dunhill Links (it is a pro-am that also includes nearby Kingsbarns and Carnoustie), he never shot worse than 69 and tied for second, eighth and third in the tournament.

"I just love the place," he said. "I love St. Andrews in general, and I'm coming in here with a lot of great memories. I've played well around here before. I just think it fits my eye really well. As long as you put your ball in the fairway here, the second shots seem to set up well for me.

"If I had one course to play, this would probably be the course, because it's just an enjoyable golf course."

So far, that has been the case for McIlroy, who has experienced nothing but success around the storied links -- and Thursday did nothing to spoil the experience.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com