NOT FOR the first time over recent years, Derry’s links to the top professional golfers in the world has again been forged following Rory McIlroy’s outstanding victory in last weekend’s US Open Championship in Maryland.
And, not for the first time, a local man has played a small part in assisting the young Holywood golfer’s progress through amateur golf circles before achieving an ambition.
Indeed, this time last year, Ciaran Burke, a former Captain of the Irish Boys’ International team (2003 to 2005), travelled to Portush to meet up with last year’s US Open Championship winner, Graeme McDowell, another member of one of his Irish international squads.
And, no doubt, when McIlroy arrives home, the former City of Derry Captain and former local GUI official, will get to personally congratulate Sunday’s 22-year-old victor following four rounds of almost flawless golf on one of the world’s top courses.
Ciaran had included a fresh-faced 14-year-old in his Irish Boys’ squad of 2004 (Under-18) and, indeed, acted as McIlroy’s caddy when competing in the European Young Masters’ Championship in Augsburg (Germany), the home course of former Ryder Cup Captain, Bernhard Langer.
McIlroy clinched the silver medal in that tournament when losing out by one shot having lost a ball on the back nine. But the youngster was always destined to be become a star having won the World Under-10 Championship at the age of just eight years old.
During his rise through the youth and junior ranks, McIlroy played regularly at City of Derry Golf Club and, more recently, took part in the Nick Faldo Series for a one week’s coaching at Ballyliffin Golf Club.
Indeed, the 22-year-old recorded the course record score at the official opening of the Old Links in 2006.
He also won the Glashedy Scratch Cup a year earlier.
Thrilled With Victory
Ciaran, who has since retired from his GUI responsibilities after a period of 21 years service, has remained in contact with all the young players who played under his tutelage at underage level and, as was the case with McDowell, he was thrilled to watch McIlroy finally overcome the disaster that was Augusta two months ago.
“The fact that his father, Gerry, was a scratch player, certainly helped his progression, but Rory was always destined for a bright future in the professional ranks,” recalled Ciaran yesterday.
“He was introduced to the sport by his father at a very, very young age. In fact, I can remember him arriving at City of Derry with a plastic driver years ago,” laughed Ciaran.
“I try to keep in touch with all the players who represented Ireland at international level and it’s also worth remembering that Shane Lowry also played in the US Open last weekend, was another promising young player during my time in charge of the Irish boys’ squads.
“I spoke with Rory when he arrived in Portrush last year to welcome Graeme McDowell home and, I must admit, he has matured into a fine young man with great character.”
Shocked to watch McIlroy tamely throw away the US Masters title in Augusta in April, when leading by four shots in the final round, Burke agreed that the experience had been a major disappointment.
“I was really shocked with his performance in the final round at Augusta. He clearly failed to maintain his focus which, I suppose, was not surprising given his young age and the pressure that was on his shoulders at that time. But it was a major disappointment for him.
“Knowing Rory as I do, I knew he would learn from that experience and within two months he was back in the same position leading yet another Major. however, last weekend we witnessed a totally different player with a totally different mindset. He was excellent and was fully deserving of what was a fabulous and never to be forgotten achievement.”
Ciaran also noted McIlroy’s growing fan base in the States. “I think the American public really appreciated the way he dealt with his final round disappointment at Augusta. Add in the Irish ingredient and I think his fan base has now exploded all over the world. We all heard the chanting from his supporters on the first fairway for his final round when so many people cheered for him, it was fantastic.”
The Celtic Tiger
Now rated No. 4 in the world, McIlroy will, no doubt, be expected to emulate the feats of Tiger Woods over the years to come and like Woods, McIlroy’s preparation for the US Open had been meticulous.
“Rory got out of Congressional what he put into it,” continued Ciaran. “He spent the full week before the Open on the course and he knew everything about the place before he teed-off in the first round.
“His preparation for the tournament had been top class and he knew what club was required on every tee. To return a record score of 17 under par - the best four round total since 1923 - was sensational and to now be the youngest winner is equally commendable.
“I enjoyed watching every shot he played and it became clear during his second round that he would not make the mistakes he made in Augusta. His victory was never in doubt and even with the tees being moved forward to assist the chasing pack for the latter rounds, Rory never lost his focus. He achieved what he set out to achieve when having his name etched on the US Open Trophy, next to Graeme’s (McDowell).”