That time Rory McIlroy almost enrolled at ETSU
Rory McIlroy signed his NLI to play golf at ETSU back in November 2004.
That time Rory McIlroy almost enrolled at ETSU
Thursday, June 18, 2015

Aaron Torres FOX Sports 

JUN 17, 2015 12:00p ET  

Fred Warren has been associated with college golf for over 40 years, first as a player who began his career at UCLA at just 16 years old, then as an assistant at one of the top programs in the nation, and most recently as the head coach at East Tennessee State University for the past 29 years. 

The Hall of Famer has seen it all during those four decades in the sport, yet even after all these years, all the matches won and lost, and players who have come and gone, one weekend sticks out about as vividly as any other: the 1996 NCAA Championships. 

There, Warren's Buccaneers had four rounds to remember. They finished fourth nationally that weekend, in what remains the best finish in school history. 

Yet despite his team's strong showing, some of Warren's most vivid memories from that weekend were not of his own players, but instead, of the opposition's. For three of four rounds, East Tennessee State was paired with Stanford, which at the time featured the most decorated player in the history of amateur golf, a guy you've probably heard of: Tiger Woods. At that point, Tiger already had two U.S. amateur titles under his belt, and would pick up a third just a few months later. 

Watching Woods up close, Warren was simply mesmerized. It wasn't just the scores that he posted, but also, the way he carried himself. Woods walked with confidence and struck the ball with no fear. He attacked the course like basically no young player Warren had ever seen. 

That's also why when many questioned Woods' decision to turn pro a few months later, Warren scoffed at Tiger's critics. He had seen Woods up close and in person, and Warren had no doubt how good he could be. 

"At that point he hadn't had much success in professional tournaments as an amateur," Warren said during a recent interview with FOX Sports. "And people were saying 'Ah, I don't think he'll make it as a pro.' And I just remember saying, 'You haven't seen this guy. He's wound different. His body is different. He's just different.'" 

Since seeing Woods that spring, Warren has had that same visceral reaction, the same belief that a guy was just different only a few other times in his career. He noticed it watching Sergio Garcia at the Junior Orange Bowl in Miami in the late 1990s. He saw it in Brandt Snedeker during his freshman season at Vanderbilt. 

Oh, and he saw it one more time, while recruiting the greatest golfer ever to sign at East Tennessee State. The player — a future tour winner and major champion — turned out to be so good that his signed Letter of Intent was later framed and still hangs in the East Tennessee golf offices to this day, even though he never played a round for the school.

So who is this mystery recruit? The guy who still has Fred Warren gushing, more than a decade after he stopped recruiting him?

Well, it's none other than Rory McIlroy

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