CARNOUSTIE, Scotland (AP) — The kid from Holywood sure looks like a star.
Of course, Rory McIlroy also looks like he got into the British Open with one of those tickets that allows juniors through the gates for free if they’re with an adult.
Whatever the case, the baby-faced teen from Northern Ireland – who claims to be all of 18 but could pass for even younger – beat up on most of the grown-ups Thursday while shooting the only bogey-free opening round at Carnoustie. He followed that with a 76 on Friday but is in good shape to make the cut at two over for the tournament.
Justifiably proud of his three-under-par 68 on Thursday, McIlroy pondered the improbable: For one night, at least, he’d go to bed with a one-stroke edge on Tiger Woods, the two-time defending Open champion and the youngster’s No. 1 role model.
“I think he’ll be able to sleep all right,” McIlroy joked. “But, yeah, it’s a pretty special feeling to say you shot one better than Tiger.”
Woods wasn’t the only one looking up to McIlroy after 18 holes.
He bested his playing partners, seasoned pros Henrik Stenson and Miguel Angel Jimenez. Heck, only two players – leader Sergio Garcia at 65 and Paul McGinley with a 67 – went lower than the lad from Holywood.
That would be Holywood, Northern Ireland, a town of 12,000 near Belfast that shares a pronunciation with America’s movie capital, though hardly the glamour. Asked if his hometown has produced anyone else of note, McIlroy paused before answering.
“I think the guy who invented the cat’s eyes in the road was from Holywood,” he said.
Although that was quite a step forward for transportation – cat’s eyes are reflectors on the highway that make it easier for motorists to differentiate the lanes at night – the intrepid inventor might have to take a back seat to Holywood’s newest sensation.
McIlroy has been cheered by steadily increasing galleries, the fans taking the cherubic, floppy haired kid under their wing.
Not that he hasn’t been preparing for this moment most of his young life. McIlroy’s father, Gerry, is a scratch golfer who still can beat his son on occasion. The family patriarch has belonged most of his life to the Holywood Golf Club, a par-69, 6,100-yard layout where young Rory honed his game.
“It’s not that much of a test for me anymore,” he said. “But it’s good to go out there in the evening and practice my short game. There’s some slopey greens and stuff on it, so it’s pretty good.”
McIlroy finished up his schooling in Northern Ireland at 16 and briefly considered enrolling at a U.S. university, looking for a spot where he could work on his game year-round.
But once he got away from the classroom, he wasn’t too keen on going back. So he focused on his golf, traveling as far as Australia to play while holding off on turning pro.
McIlroy helped Europe win the Junior Ryder Cup in 2004 (that doesn’t bode well for U.S. hopes down the road) and got exempted into a few pro events, missing out on a payday when he made the cut this year at the Dubai Desert Classic before turning 18. He’ll probably start accepting checks after playing the Walker Cup in September.
“He’s fearless. He’s a great ball striker, he’s got a good short game and he’s a good putter as well,” Stenson said. “He seems to have it all. I think we’ll be hearing more about him in the future.”
McIlroy admittedly was nervous when he stepped to the first tee on Thursday. He took in a huge mouthful of air and tried to calm himself, though it took a few holes to settle down. He started with four straight pars before striking a 4-iron to 15 feet at No. 5, then sinking the putt for his first birdie.
After that, he felt as though he belonged.
“I don’t think a bogey ever ran across my mind,” McIlroy said. “I don’t think I had many bad shots to put myself in a position to make bogeys. I just sort of went out there with the mind-set that I’m going to enjoy myself.”
Did he ever. Now, it might be time to adjust those goals.