By Jeff Rude, Senior Writer
BETHESDA, Md. – The second happiest player at this year’s U.S. Open made a 9 on the sixth hole Friday. He wasn’t delighted with that, of course, or with missing the cut after shooting 79-75–154. But this still was perhaps the most special week in Scott Pinckney’s young life.
The reason isn’t because the 22-year-old Arizona State senior was playing in his first Open. Or because he was rubbing elbows with the world’s best players in his first PGA Tour event as a contestant. Or because of the lessons learned.
It was because of Rory McIlroy.
To the rest of us, McIlroy is the runaway 36-hole leader of the Open, a resilient player who put his stunning Masters collapse aside and stormed Congressional with 11-under-par 65-66–131 despite a watery double bogey at the last.
To Pinckney, though, McIlroy has been something of a brother. At the least, as Pinckney puts it, they have been the “best of friends.”
Do you remember your closest friend when you were 11 years old? I’m figuring you probably do. So many forge relationships then that stand the test of time.
McIlroy and Pinckney were no different. They were the best of pals then, to the point McIlroy’s parents sent their son to Orem, Utah, in the summer of 2000 to live with Pinckney and his family for three months. The thinking was the golf weather in Utah was better than that of Northern Ireland.
Daily they played golf together and ate meals together and played games together. Weekly they competed in Utah junior golf tournaments together, and when one didn’t win, the other did.
“We were both at the same level golf-wise,” said Pinckney, the 2009 NCAA All-America who has one semester left at ASU. “We went back and forth winning.”
Mainly, though, they bonded. The friendship was forged at the Doral-Publix Junior, the year they turned 9. They met and immediately hit it off. Their families met and immediately hit it off. The two boys stayed up late and played the table game foosball together every night. During the day, they played excellent golf. McIlroy won the age 10-11 division and Pinckney finished second.
They kept in touch and two years later McIlroy became a temporary part of the Pinckney family. It was a summer to remember. It was also a first day to forget.
“The first day he was there we went to the pool and he got so sunburned,” Pinckney recalled after his second round here. “He got sun sick, sun blistered. He was puking during the night.”
That prompted a transcontinental telephone call to Northern Ireland.
“My mom called his parents,” Pinckney said. “It was like, ‘We’re taking real good care of him. He’s sick. He didn’t put on any sunscreen.’ ”
The two youths wrote and called each other quite a bit for a while after that summer together. But they didn’t see each other for another nine years.
Pinckney would evolve into a fine young player, getting the scholarship to ASU, becoming a college All-America, winning the 2010 Trans-Mississippi Amateur, tying for medalist honors at the Open sectional this year in Glendale, Calif.
McIlroy, of course, would become something of a phenom, turning pro at 18 and climbing up the world ranking as a teenager and contending in multiple majors the last couple of years. When McIlroy qualified for the WGC Accenture Match Play in 2009 in Marana, Ariz., near Tucson, Pinckney couldn’t wait to see his pal. So he drove down from his home in Cave Creek, Ariz., for a reunion.
Pinckney walked along inside the ropes as McIlroy played a practice round. Pinckney’s father came down the next day to also renew acquaintances. The two young men exchanged email addresses and pledged to keep in touch. They emailed each other some after that, but then Pinckney lost his telephone and thus McIlroy’s email address.
So you can imagine Pinckney’s joy when he qualified for the Open. It wasn’t so much going to the Open that moved him, he said. It was the opportunity to see McIlroy again, for the first time in two years.
“When I qualified, I was so excited that I was going to see him,” Pinckney said. “That was the first thing I thought of, that I can’t wait to see Rory. I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep for a couple of nights.”
So Pinckney waited for McIlroy to register on Monday. And waited. And waited. He said he kept going to the registration desk, asking, “Has Rory registered yet?”
Soon after, they met by chance on a clubhouse elevator. The scene smacked of something out of a sappy movie.
That night, they went to dinner, with Pinckney’s father joining. The next morning, they went to a shopping mall together, just the two of them. They had coffee there. They shopped. Pinckney said he bought some underwear briefs. McIlroy, who looks like he doesn’t need to shave, bought shaving cream.
“He hasn’t changed,” Pinckney said. “He’s completely down to earth. It was like nothing had changed, like we were best of friends.”
On Wednesday, they played Congressional’s back nine in a practice round together. Pinckney got a closeup of perhaps golf’s next superstar.
“It’s unbelievable,” Pinckney said. “He has such a great attitude where he’s only going to keep improving. His ball-striking is unbelievable. His attitude and perseverance shows he’s only learned from what happened at the Masters.”
Then the tournament started and the two headed for opposite ends of the spectrum. Pinckney shot 154 and McIlroy 131. One was so happy. One was so happy for the other.
They found each other after that second round. They talked about their rounds. One had more reason to talk. The other had reason to praise.
“I told him, ‘Great job, Rory,’ ” Pinckney said. “‘You’ve got the game. You’ll get it done.’ ”
Then Scott Pinckney had lunch, emptied his locker, packed up his gold ASU bag and left Congressional. He left behind a touching week that sparked countless fond memories – memories centered on those priceless days with the person who is now at the center of golf’s universe.
Pinckney won’t be playing on the weekend, but he’ll be watching closely. McIlroy has a legion of new fans who admire how he handled his Masters demise. But no one figures to root harder for him than his pal from the past.