BEST OF ASN | Rory McIlroy, world’s top golfer, almost got his start at ETSU

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland watches his tee shot on the fourth hole during the third round of The Barclays at Liberty National Golf Club on August 24, 2013 in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Darren Carroll/Getty Images)

Originally published on June 17

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Today, Rory McIlroy is the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer and  one of the favorites to win the year’s second major — the U.S. Open, which starts Thursday at Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place, Wash.

“Do I feel like the best player in the world? Yes,” he said this week.

So you can imagine how East Tennessee State golf coach Fred Warren feels watching one of his almost-former players.

That’s right, Rory McIlroy almost teed it up for ETSU.

In late 2004, 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.” (See the school’s press release: ETSU men’s golf signs Irish star Rory McIlroy)

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,” said Warren. “Looking back how could you argue with his decision. He was recruited by a lot of schools but we had him.”

And it opened the door to ETSU’s multicultural rosters.


Keith Chartrand

Keith Chartrand

Keith Chartrand is a freelance writer based in Ocala, Fla.