In late 2004, East Tennessee State golf coach Fred Warren was watching the Boys Home International tournament at Portmarnock Golf Course outside Dublin, Ireland.
The event, an annual team competition for boys from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, put some of the best junior golfers in Europe on display.
Warren made the overseas recruiting trip in hopes of landing an up-and-coming star from County Down, Ireland. There was a very good chance that Warren would return to ETSU with a verbal commitment from the boy who, as the story goes, hit a 40-yard drive at the tender age of 2. Warren had a leg up on the other U.S. college coaches pursuing the phenom.
“I (already) had two of his best friends on my team, Cian McNamara and Gareth Shaw,” said Warren. “That was the primary reason it was easy to recruit him. Parents talk (too). Sending their sons 5,000 miles away from home is a big deal. Both (Cian and Gareth) were happy at ETSU.”
McNamara and Shaw talked a lot about their friend to Warren. In addition to telling him about how good a golfer he was, they both said that he was eager to come to the States and play college golf.
While walking the fairways of Portmarnock, Warren found the boy’s father. Warren didn’t have to sell ETSU’s golf facilities, the elite competition they play or emphasize how easy the transition of living in America would be with Cian and Gareth there.
“I said to his dad, ‘Would Rory be interested in playing college golf in the United States?’” Warren recalled. His father said he wanted to play at ETSU.
That phenom was Rory McIlory.
“He made an official visit and signed a letter of intent,” said Warren. “I have the letter framed in my office."
From the school's press release:
East Tennessee State University men's golf coach Fred Warren announced on Monday the signing of Holywood, Northern Ireland, native Rory McIlroy to a National Letter of Intent to play golf for the Buccaneers beginning in 2005-06.
The youthful McIlroy brings an extensive and successful resume to Johnson City, including wins in the 2004 Irish Boys Championship and the 2004 Irish Youths Championships, becoming the first player since 1991 to win both championships in the same year. He also enjoyed a victory in the 2004 Ulster Boys Championship and a runner-up finish in the prestigious 2004 Duke of York Invitational.
In addition, he won the Tom Montgomery Award as the top ranked junior in Ireland in 2004 and was a member of the 2004 Junior Ryder Cup Team which competed against the United Stated in Detroit this past September.
Of course, McIlroy never teed it up for ETSU.
During the eight months that followed that event at Portnarnock, McIlroy’s play improved drastically. “He started really developing over the winter,” said Warren. “He went to Spain and Portugal to play in the warmer climates.”
In the spring of 2005, McIlroy won both the West of Ireland Championship and the Irish Close Championship, the youngest winner of both events. That got the attention of European Tour players Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood as well as golf agent Chubby Chandler.
What was professional golf’s gain was ETSU’s loss. With Clarke, Westwood and Chandler in his ear, McIlroy decided that instead of playing for ETSU he was going to continue playing amateur golf in Europe.
A year later he turned pro. He spent 95 weeks at No. 1 in the world rankings and has won 11 times on the PGA Tour, including four majors.
“Looking back how could you argue with his decision,” Warren said. “He was recruited by a lot of schools but we had him.”
And thus judged the greatest sports moment in ETSU history.
• ETSU Athletics Hall of Fame
On the cover and middle: Rory McIlroy's letter of intent he signed with East Tennessee State. (Photo Courtesy ETSU Athletics)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Drexel and Duquesne
• Tuesday: East Carolina and East Tennessee State
• Wednesday: Eastern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky
• Thursday: Eastern Michigan and Elon
• Friday: Ferris State and Florida Atlantic