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Could Rochester and Rory McIlroy make a winning combination?

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Could Rochester and Rory McIlroy make a winning combination?

    Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin

    ROCHESTER, N.Y. – One wouldn’t expect an easy familiarity between a Northern Irishman-turned-Floridian and western New York.

    But for Rory McIlroy, set to chase his third PGA Championship title this week at Oak Hill Country Club, his family ties with the venue and region date back several years.

    In 2008, McIlroy’s wife Erica worked as an office manager for the PGA of America at the Senior PGA Championship at Oak Hill; she graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology that spring. Erica grew up in Irondequoit, a suburb of the city. As their relationship developed, McIlroy became more and more ingrained in the western New York culture – even if he has only consumed one “garbage plate,” a Rochester delicacy that mashes up meats, fries, salads and sauces.

    “My connection to Rochester has gotten a lot stronger,” McIlroy said earlier this year. “So I’m excited to go and play a major championship in what feels like almost a second home to me.”

    McIlroy, the reigning FedExCup champ and third-ranked player in the world, knows the golf world is wondering when he’ll hoist another major title; his last of four majors came at the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla. He owns 23 PGA TOUR wins and three FedExCups and said Tuesday that even if he doesn’t win another tournament, he’ll consider his career a success.

    There’d be no place like his self-described second home to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy – he’d become the sixth man to win three or more PGA Championships -- and break that major drought. His recent results have been uneven; he followed a missed cut at the Masters with a T47 at the Wells Fargo Championship. But it could be a good time to come to a familiar spot.

    If early-week crowds are any indication, he’s the fan favorite at Oak Hill. He finished T8 in the 2013 PGA at Oak Hill, sandwiched between his wins in 2012 and 2014. That marks the last major held in western New York.

    “I didn’t know a ton about this part of the world pre-2013, the first time we played here,” said McIlroy. “I’ve spent summers here, I’ve spent falls here, I’ve spent a few Christmases here; I really love the seasons. We live in Florida; we don’t get that.

    “So it’s nice to come up here and see the leaves change in October and see the snow at Christmastime. There are certainly parts of it that I’ve really enjoyed and will continue to enjoy.”

    Rory McIlroy on keys to success at PGA Championship

    McIlroy, an Oak Hill member, spends ample time in western New York but hasn’t played too much golf here during his family trips to the region. He’s fluent in western New York geography and sports teams, well aware of the Buffalo Bills’ longtime struggles until a recent uptick in quarterback play. “It’s easier to root for the Bills with Josh Allen throwing the football,” he quipped on Tuesday.

    Allen also is a member at Oak Hill, a club which has welcomed local athletes as members for decades. Members of the 1951 Rochester Royals championship team were Oak Hill members, said club historian Fred Beltz. The NBA franchise relocated to Cincinnati in 1957 and eventually to California, where it is now known as the Sacramento Kings. Rochester native Johnny Antonelli, a six-time MLB All-Star baseball pitcher in the 1950s, was an Oak Hill member for nearly five decades, Beltz said.

    Oak Hill began in 1901 as a nine-hole track on the banks of the Genesee River with just 25 members, Beltz said, at a $25 initiation rate with $20 yearly dues. The club eventually expanded to 18 holes before moving to its current 36-hole location in a land swap with the University of Rochester. Donald Ross walked the property before the swap was finalized, giving the membership his blessing that the land was suitable for golf.

    The East Course, which opened in 1926, gained national acclaim with an event in 1941 won by Sam Snead and has proceeded to host several of the game’s greatest championships with a series of illustrious winners. Jack Nicklaus won his record-tying fifth PGA Championship at Oak Hill in 1980, seven strokes clear of Andy Bean. Nicklaus shares the record with Walter Hagen – who grew up three miles from Oak Hill and spent time as a caddie and instructor at the nearby Country Club of Rochester. Lee Trevino won the 1968 U.S. Open here, his first of 29 TOUR wins.

    “Golf has been in Rochester’s DNA for a long, long time,” Beltz said. “There are six or seven Donald Ross courses within 10 miles. … You’ve got the short season, it’s kind of crazy, but we’ve got an awful lot of roots into golf. It’s just all over the place. North Carolina would’ve made a lot more sense in some respects (laughs) but here we are.

    “Each of the courses in the area will marshal a hole (this week). … Everybody wants to be part of golf and what’s going on.”

    McIlroy has embraced that culture and what differentiates it from New York City, which is located more than 300 miles to the southeast.

    “I think when people hear New York, they think of New York City and New Yorkers, and feel like the people and the culture up here is not like that very much,” McIlroy said. “I feel like it feels a bit more like Midwest rather than like New York City. It's a little more of, I guess, a relaxed lifestyle up here, which is nice. A lot of outdoorsy stuff and you can hike and ski and there's a ton of stuff to do around the Finger Lakes. I've gotten to know all of that stuff, which is quite nice.”

    McIlroy played Oak Hill’s back nine Tuesday afternoon, donning a greenish-gray hoodie over a yellow shirt as the winds gusted off Lake Ontario. The crowd, 10 deep in some spots, was dotted with Buffalo Bills hats and shirts. McIlroy has expressed interest in meeting Allen; the quarterback, a golf aficionado who plays the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, will be on-site throughout the week as a tournament ambassador and will play Oak Hill this coming Monday, alongside three winners of a fan contest.

    If McIlroy and Allen don’t meet this week, perhaps a round at Oak Hill is in the future offing, top-tier athletes with western New York connections at a historic venue.

    May 17 update: McIlroy and Allen met during Wednesday's practice round at Oak Hill. As McIlroy traversed the East Course's front nine in the late afternoon, Allen came over to say hello and walked a couple holes.

    Alongside the 623-yard, par-5 13th hole is the club’s “Hill of Fame,” with plaques on trees recognizing past winners and contributors to the venue’s heritage. Nicklaus, Hagen and Trevino are among the honorees, as are local figures including Rochester native and 1988 PGA Championship winner Jeff Sluman (at Oak Tree CC in Oklahoma).

    As McIlroy approached the 13th green Tuesday, the fans rose to their feet, roaring in appreciation. He wouldn’t mind a similar reception Sunday afternoon, nor would the Oak Hill membership or western New York at large.

    “Are you kidding me?” Beltz said. “The town would go crazy.”

    Kevin Prise is an associate editor for PGATOUR.COM. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.

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