It’s been 17 years since Rory McIlroy visited Mount Juliet, host venue for this week’s Irish Open.
Back then, he was just a hotshot kid with a moptop who had begun to make a name for himself in the Irish amateur scene. Following the final round of the 2004 WGC-American Express Championship, he spent time in the clubhouse mingling with winner Ernie Els, as well as Darren Clarke and agent-to-the-stars Chubby Chandler.
Two years before that, McIlroy had even better memories.
“The last time I was on the 18th green here was during the prize ceremony, when Tiger won,” McIlroy told reporters on Tuesday, referring to Woods’ WGC victory at Mount Juliet Estate in 2002.
“I remember I somehow sneaked my way under the rope onto the back of the green, and I was standing right behind him and his glove was still in his back pocket,” McIlroy said. “I could have reached and got it and ran; it would have been a good story to tell him, but I obviously didn’t.”
For McIlroy, then 13, it was the first time he’d seen Woods play in person, and he was blown away by the experience. “I remember the first shot I ever saw him hit was a drive off the fifth hole, the par 5, and he hit a 2-iron into the green,” he recalled. “It was really cool. I idolized him growing up, and to actually see the man in the flesh was pretty exciting.
“But yeah, really good memories coming back down here watching. Glad to be back, and certainly a lot has changed in the last 17 years since the last time I was here.”
McIlroy is making his first of three consecutive starts, continuing with next week’s Scottish Open and then culminating with the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s. That wasn’t the initial plan – he intended to play this week, take next week off and then return for The Open – but strict travel restrictions for non-athletes led McIlroy to keep his young family in the U.S. and alter his playing schedule. Now he’s flying solo, with plenty of tournament golf to keep him busy. It’s the first time he’s played the Irish Open since 2018.
McIlroy hit balls for only two hours last week as he took a break following the U.S. Open, where he tied for seventh. He came away from Torrey Pines encouraged despite a couple of back-nine mistakes that cost him a chance at a fifth major title, and first since 2014. Though he made a costly double bogey on the 12th hole, he chalked that up to a bad break in the greenside bunker – two weeks later, he was more annoyed by the three-putt on the previous green that killed his momentum. But overall, he was pleased by the progress he’s made since he began working with swing coach Pete Cowen this spring.
“I felt good,” he said. “I felt going into the final round, I just had a better understanding, a little more certainty about what I was doing, and that led to being much more comfortable out there.”