How Rory McIlroy and Seamus Power (almost) became teammates in college
The last two PGA TOUR winners – Rory McIlroy and Seamus Power – have both represented Ireland at the Olympics.
They also have ties to another team. The East Tennessee State Men’s Golf Team.
The small school in Johnson City, Tennessee competes in the Southern Conference and the Football Championship Subdivision (more commonly known as Division I-AA). Golf is perhaps the school’s strongest sport, thanks in part to a pipeline from Britain and Ireland that included Power and (almost) McIlroy.
The Buccaneers, led by Irishman Keith Nolan, finished third in the 1996 NCAA Championship – ahead of a Stanford team led by Tiger Woods – and played twice in the NCAA Championship during Power’s tenure.
Power, who won his second PGA TOUR title on Sunday at the Butterfield Bermuda Championship, was nearly preceded on campus by McIlroy, who won the CJ CUP in South Carolina on Oct. 23 to move up to No. 1 in the world.
McIlroy signed a letter of intent to play golf for the Buccaneers beginning in the 2005-06 season. “Young McIlroy brings a full and successful resume to Johnson City,” read the November 2004 press release, which is still available online. McIlroy opted to stay in Ireland and play amateur golf instead of going to university, but ETSU coach at the time Fred Warren kept the signed letter of intent and the had it framed.
“I signed a letter of intent to play for ETSU, did my SAT, did everything like that, so I was (was) totally ready to come and play college golf” , McIlroy said in 2015. “But at that point I knew I really wanted to turn pro before I was four. … I had no intention of graduating, so I thought that it was better to play this amateur golf full time in Ireland.
“By the time I was probably getting out of college, I had just won my first major, so it was kind of a good decision in the end.”
The connection between Ireland and ETSU was actually started by John Paul Fitzgerald, who played for the Buccaneers and became McIlroy’s caddy for several years. Next is Nolan, who finished T9 in that 1996 NCAA championship and represented Great Britain and Ireland in the Walker Cup the following year. When McIlroy decided not to attend ETSU, Warren was looking for players to fill his spot.
The longtime ETSU coach watched Power play at the 2005 European Boys’ Team Championship at Monticello Golf Club in Italy.
“He had an American style game,” Warren told The New York Times. “A long hitter, aggressive, trying to birdies. I was really impressed with him.
Power had struggled to attract interest from other American schools and had it not been for the offer of scholarships from East Tennessee State, he was considering taking an accounting course at a university in Ireland. , according to the Times. Power still had doubts about attending ETSU even though he was on his flight to the United States.
“Where am I going?” Power told The Times. “I didn’t have a phone. I didn’t have many dollars. If I land here, and if something as simple as my coach isn’t at the airport to pick me up, I have no idea what I’m going to do.
According to a 2016 profile on PGATOUR.COM, McIlroy’s decision not to attend ETSU freed up money that was used for Power’s scholarship. McIlroy played amateur golf until turning professional after the 2007 Walker Cup.
Power started at ETSU in the fall of 2006 (when McIlroy would have been a sophomore on the team) and earned an accounting degree in 2011. He was also a two-time conference champion. He spent several years on mini-tours before playing his first full Korn Ferry Tour season in 2015. He was a PGA TOUR rookie for the 2017 season, but failed to make the FedExCup playoffs in three of its first four seasons.
It has, however, seen a rapid rise over the past 18 months. He started 2021 ranked 429th in the world, but has now moved up to a career-best 32nd in the OWGR. He earned his first PGA TOUR victory at the Barbasol Championship in July 2021. He is also fifth in this season’s FedExCup.