Bandon, Ore. – Like any first-time U.S. Open qualifier, Scott Pinckney was excited to be teeing it up with the game’s greatest players at Congressional Country Club two weeks ago.
The chance to play a challenging layout in front of thousands of fans had the 22-year-old from Scottsdale, Ariz., as giddy as a child seeing Disney World for the first time.
But there was one other factor that intrigued Pinckney after he earned his spot by sharing medalist honors at his sectional qualifier, on June 6 at Oakmont Country Club in Glendale, Calif.
He was going to see Rory McIlroy.
You ask how does a kid who grew up in rural Utah befriend someone from Northern Ireland?
Well, it’s not quite a Hollywood story – call it a Holywood saga instead.
McIlroy, who hails from the Northern Ireland town of Holywood, first met Pinckney 13 years ago when the two were 9-year-olds, both moving up to compete in the 10-11-year-old division of the Doral-Publix Junior Classic in Miami, Fla. That week, Pinckney and McIlroy became inseparable. A bond was formed. They ate meals together, played foosball and finished 1-2 in the competition, with the future U.S. Open champion winning.
A few years later, the relationship was strong enough that McIlroy’s parents decided to send their son to Utah for the summer. The weather, they figured, was a little better as was the competition.
For the next three months, young Rory and Scott traveled the state and dominated Utah Junior Golf Association events. It’s when McIlroy learned the hard way about the benefits of SPF 40 sunblock.
“We went to the pool,” said Pinckney on Tuesday at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, where he is competing in the 2011 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. He shot a 1-over 71 at Old Macdonald and at 8-over 149 should make the match-play cut. “He forgot to put on sunscreen and got sun sickness. He had sun blisters. He still has freckles on his back from the sun.”
But McIlroy was hardly scarred by the experience. Pinckney saw that his young Northern Irish housemate had some serious potential. Now at 11, nobody can predict future success. Everyone dreams of sinking a putt to win a major championship like the U.S. Open or British Open.
Back then, the two just were kids having a good time. Their down-to-earth personalities meshed and the friendship continued long after that summer of 1991.
Pinckney eventually landed a scholarship to Arizona State, where he was a two-time All-American (2009 and 2011). He remains 12 units shy of graduating with a double degree in BIS (Business Information Systems) Education and Sociology.
McIlroy’s game progressed even faster. At 17, he was representing Great Britain and Ireland in the Walker Cup Match at Royal County Down, not far from his hometown. While he did sign to play at East Tennessee State, McIlroy never stepped onto the Johnson City campus. He turned pro not long after the Walker Cup and his career continues to reach new heights.
“Obviously, his game just skyrocketed,” said Pinckney. “[You could] see he definitely had the potential to be what he is now.”
Yet with all that success and fame, Pinckney says McIlroy remains the same person he was back when they were 11-year-olds playing in the pool.
“He’s so down-to-earth,” said Pinckney. “On and off the course he’s the same person.”
Two years ago, Pinckney drove down to the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Marana, Ariz. The two had lost touch over the years. First, McIlroy changed his e-mail address and then Pinckney lost his phone at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport. So he figured the best thing to do was to surprise his buddy at the PGA Tour event. McIlroy instantly recognized Pinckney, although both had grown significantly and Rory’s short hair style had by then morphed into the now-familiar moppy look.
Pinckney was taken inside the ropes and later to dinner that evening to reminisce.
“He didn’t know that I had moved to Arizona (Cave Creek),” said Pinckney. “We had a good time.”
But the best was yet to happen. This year, Pinckney made it through both local and sectional qualifying to get into the U.S. Open. It would be the first time testing his budding game against the pros.
Then there was the McIlroy factor. Upon registering at Congressional, Pinckney waited in the clubhouse for McIlroy to arrive. He was hoping to land a precious practice round with the guy who had come within nine holes of winning the Masters in April.
The reunion would happen in – of all places – a clubhouse elevator. The good times were only beginning.
On Wednesday, they played nine holes at Congressional. They went shopping and had coffee together.
Once the championship started, the two went completely in opposite directions. Pinckney shot 79-75 and missed the cut by eight strokes. McIlroy won by eight strokes, shattering virtually every U.S. Open record. His 16-under 268 total was the lowest 72-hole score in 111 playings of the National Open. His two-round total of 131 broke the 36-hole scoring mark. He was the first 22-year-old winner since a guy named Jack Nicklaus made the Open his first pro win in 1962. He was the youngest champion since a guy named Bob Jones won a playoff over Bobby Cruickshank in 1923.
Comparisons to Tiger Woods were flowing out of fellow competitors’ mouths and journalists’ computers.
And Pinckney got a front-row seat to history. Originally scheduled to depart on Sunday, he changed his return flight to Monday morning.
It was the best $150 he spent all week.
“That was pretty special,” said Pinckney. “It’s the best. It’s the top [of my golf experiences].”
Pinckney obviously was frustrated not to be playing the weekend with McIlroy. In Thursday’s first round, he played the first nine holes in even par before shooting a second-nine 43.
“I wanted to see where the ball was going before I took the club back,” said Pinckney. “My timing and everything was off. It was just because I wasn’t comfortable with it.”
McIlroy told Pinckney that night to calm down and be patient. It worked until Pinckney, gambling to make something happen over his final four holes, knocked his second shot into the water on the par-5 sixth and made a disastrous 9. He still posted a 75 with the quadruple bogey.
Pinckney could point to McIlroy’s final-round 80 at the Masters. Or the 80 he posted in round two of the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews, after starting with a 63.
This was a major lesson for Pinckney.
“I learned more missing the cut than making it,” said Pinckney.
Nevertheless, Pinckney watched McIlroy hoist the U.S. Open Trophy on Sunday. He then celebrated with McIlroy’s family and entourage, which included his agent, Chubby Chandler, and several other members of ISM, the management company that represents McIlroy. The partying lasted into the wee hours of the night.
Pinckney never slept. He left the hotel at 6 a.m. for an 8:20 flight back to Arizona. McIlroy followed by flying to Massachusetts for a previously scheduled corporate outing on Cape Cod.
Two weeks later, Pinckney is on the southwest coast of Oregon likely playing his final amateur event. If he doesn’t win the APL title, which brings plenty of spoils including a likely invitation to next year’s Masters, he will sign with ISM next week and begin playing professionally in Europe, both on the European Tour and the European Challenge Tour.
Then again, an APL win would give Pinckney another chance to play with and against McIlroy – at Augusta in April.
Now that would be a Hollywood story.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. E-mail him at email@example.com.