Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler might appear too young for reflective glances towards their youth, but the reality of this week suggests otherwise.
Eight years have flown by since McIlroy and Fowler faced off as teenage amateurs in the Walker Cup at Royal County Down, a big moment in their respective and intertwined careers, which ensures the return of the Irish Open to the venue for the first time in eight decades holds a broader significance.
The fact that McIlroy is hosting the event, via his charity foundation, and thereby personally invited Fowler to participate demonstrates this. McIlroy and Fowler, plus Martin Kaymer, will appropriately have each other for company during rounds one and two, overlooked by the beautiful Mountains ofMourne.
Fowler was part of a narrow and memorable Walker Cup victory in 2007, the Californian recalling on Wednesday how waving a United States flag from the back of a golf buggy in celebration on the 18th fairway remains one of the high points of his career. McIlroy’s emotion was altogether different.
“At that time, not being a part of a winning team, I was probably driving out of here thinking: ‘Why did I stay amateur for two days of golf?’” said the world No1.
“But looking back at it? It was one of the best experiences I had. And not just in terms of the golf but the people that you meet, the friendships you make and the friendships you keep. It’s something that you don’t appreciate then but whenever you move on a few years, that stuff is just as important.”
That journey took McIlroy to an airport and onwards to the Oxfordshire Golf Club, where he competed in his first event as a professional, the European Tour’s qualifying school. Fowler waited another two years before stepping forward from amateur status but an alliance had been forged. Now, as the players ranked first and ninth in the world respectively, McIlroy and Fowler are Florida neighbours.
“That’s where Rickie and I’s friendship stemmed from,” McIlroy added. “I just thought he was a really, really good guy. His parents are very nice people and they get on well with my parents; we just sort of clicked. Rickie stayed amateur but I was still following his progress.”
McIlroy had anything but a hard sell to Fowler when his Irish Open connection was confirmed. “Royal County Down is one of my favourites, it has been since that Walker Cup,” Fowler said. “Being able to help out Rory and his foundation, and getting asked by him to come over here and play; I didn’t have to think about it at all. It’s one of my favourite places to play that I’ve ever been to, and I’m able to help out a friend.”
Fowler had significant catching up to do on his old chum before victory at the Players Championship earlier this month underlined his long‑standing potential. And so, discussion reappeared about the Rory v Rickie rivalry golf fans have anticipated for so long. “He was definitely one of the guys looked at before that Walker Cup,” Fowler said of McIlroy. “We knew that the team assembled was very strong and we were going to be having a tough test no matter who we were playing. We did a very good job as a team that week.
“This week, he is the No1 player in the world and he has been proving that for quite a while. Rory has definitely shown he’s been the most consistent and the guy that’s been in that position most.”
Fowler will have a problem challenging McIlroy in the popularity stakes here, as he well knows. At an auction on Tuesday evening, £125,000 was paid to partner McIlroy in the next day’s pro-am. And by Americans, no less. McIlroy will donate his entire winnings from the Irish Open, which has completely sold out, to charity.
No matter career progression, though, the basic challenge is the same. “Even since that Walker Cup, I’ve gotten to know this course even better because I come down here at seven o’clock at night, it stays light until half 10,” McIlroy said.
“I can play nine holes, 18 holes, just carry my own clubs and walk around, hitting a few balls. It really gets me back into links golf mode.
“I did loads of preparation here before the Scottish Open and the Open last year and it definitely helped.
“It’s a tough course. And I think it will really reward a smart golfer. It’s really like a game of chess out here, you have just got to play your positions and you’ve got to plot your way along. That’s what it will reward.”
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