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Rory McIlroy insists he's just a normal teenager who just happens to be a pretty good golfer. (Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy insists he's just a normal teenager who just happens to be a pretty good golfer. (Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

After a big start, amateur McIlroy rethinks his goals

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Rory McIlroy arrived at Carnoustie hoping to finish as the low amateur. After a bogey-free 68, one shot better than his idol Tiger Woods, the 18-year-old from Northern Ireland can't be blamed for starting to dream about the Claret Jug.

By Helen Ross, Chief of Correspondents

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland -- His goal was to make the cut and claim the silver medal that goes to the low amateur at the 136th Open Championship.

After a 68 that left the 18-year-old amateur from Northern Ireland three strokes off the lead, though, Rory McIlroy may need to re-adjust his thinking.

The teenage sensation didn't make a bogey at Carnoustie on Thursday, the only player in the field of seasoned veterans who could make that claim. So suddenly McIlroy finds himself tied with U.S. Open champions Angel Cabrera and Michael Campbell, among others, with a chance at the Claret Jug instead.

Not to mention, McIlroy shot one better than his idol, Tiger Woods, and managed to beat both his playing partners, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Henrik Stenson, to boot.

"A pretty good opening day," McIlroy said in understatement. "I played really well out there. I was very nervous the first few holes. But when I birdied the fifth, I sort of got in my stride and I sort of got going there and played some really solid golf.

"Overall, this was a really good day. I soaked up the atmosphere and really enjoyed it."

Poised and unassuming, McIlroy started playing golf at the age of 2 and was competing in tournaments by the time he was 7. The prodigy admits he's probably outgrown his home club, Holywood, a 6,100-yard, par-69 layout in County Down, where he plays to a plus-6.

McIlroy's best score at Holywood is a 65, but his crowning achievement -- prior to Thursday, of course -- is that 61 he shot at Royal Portrush. He'll give his buddies, talented players in their own right, a stroke a hole at home and then "see how they do.

"Most of my friends are good players, anyway; they're between scratch and 5, so they're all pretty handy," McIlroy explained.

So is his father, a scratch golfer, who actually beat McIlroy last winter "so he can still play a little bit," the son said with a smile. But there's no doubt who's his hero is when it comes to playing golf.

"I think from an early age Tiger Woods has always been my hero," McIlroy said. "Like he won the '96 U.S. Amateur and I think after that it was just Tiger, Tiger, Tiger. And he's been my one big influence in my whole golfing life."

McIlroy has played practice rounds this week with Trevor Immelman and Niclas Fasth, as well as Nick Faldo, although the Brit quit after four holes. "It was a bit wet for him," said the teen who is a product of the six-time major champion's junior golf program.

"Nick's been great the last couple of years for me," said McIlroy, who also has the counsel of countryman Darren Clarke. "He's won six majors and played in so many Ryder Cups. He's been a great influence on me.

"Probably the thing I've learned most from him is just course management. I've played with him a few times and he's not the longest off the tee, but just the way he can position his ball around the golf course is really good. He's a great iron player. In his prime he was fantastic."

McIlroy calls himself a "normal teenager, but I'm a pretty good golfer as well." He likes to go to movies and forget about the game. His girlfriend and his parents are with him at Carnoustie, and several friends are working scoreboards on the course.

McIlroy left school when he was 16, but he took the SATs and had planned to go to East Tennessee State. He was looking for a more temperate climate where he could play golf in the winter, but eventually decided Australia offered a better option.

"I wasn't really that keen on the school part," McIlroy said with a smile.

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McIlroy will turn pro in September after playing in the Walker Cup. He made the cut in the Dubai Desert Classic earlier this year -- a first against the pros -- and eventually finished in a tie for 52nd. He sees himself getting more consistent and welcomes every opportunity to learn from the best -- like Stenson and Jimenez on Thursday.

"Miguel is just such a good shot maker," McIlroy said. "He plays away from the trouble, but he can shape his shots so that he's never really getting into big trouble. And he knows when to play for pins and not when to play for pins.

"Henrik hits it long off the tee and hits it sky high. That?s the sort of course Carnoustie is, as well; you have to think your way around and plot your way around. You can shoot some irons off the tee, but there's holes you have to be aggressive with. Players like that know when to be aggressive and when not to. That's what I'm learning."

McIlroy has learned from Justin Rose, as well. The Englishman nearly won the 1998 Open as an amateur, eventually finishing in a tie for fourth.

"Justin's performance at Birkdale was phenomenal," McIlroy said. "And I think if he can do it at that age, I'm sure I can, as well. And that's probably going to be my mindset for the next few days.

"So it's just going to be ... it's going to be a lot of fun to go out there and ... I'm playing well. I feel I'm hitting the ball good. If I can hole a few putts, hopefully I can be in Justin Rose's position in only nine years (later)."

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