He may not have lifted a Major championship trophy for five years, but home favourite Rory McIlroy is regarded as the man to beat as The Open Championship returns to Royal Portrush in his native Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.
The Ulsterman, who hails from Holywood, about an hour’s drive from Portrush, will have the crowd on his side as he targets what would be the most coveted victory of his career.
“There’s nothing that I’d like more than to lift that Claret Jug in front of all my friends and family,” said McIlroy. “Would it be my most special win? Certainly, 100 per cent it would.
“I haven’t tried to hide the fact that playing a Major championship, basically at home, would ever become an opportunity.”
Although McIlroy’s exceptional talent had already been spotted by a string of eye-catching performances in his youth, his meteoric rise to golf superstardom truly began on the Antrim coast in 2005 when, as a fresh faced 16-year-old amateur, he fired off an eagle and nine birdies to post a course-record 61 during the North of Ireland Championship at Royal Portrush.
It’s a record which will now never be broken due to the removal of the old 17th and 18th holes and the addition of two new holes (seventh and eighth) effectively making a ‘new course’ in the eyes of the history book recorders.
“I’m going to a golf course where I’ve played well before,” said McIlroy. “I know it better than most of the guys who will be playing, so I have to go out there with a good mindset and, obviously, not let the occasion get the better of me and, hopefully, produce some good golf and give myself a chance.
“I feel like I can go into it and treat it like any other Open Championship. I’ve played a lot of them. I’ve done well in a lot of them. So, there’s no reason why I can’t do well with this one either.”
More than 200,000 spectators are expected to descend upon the famous Dunluce Links during Championship week and the spotlight will be focused firmly on McIlroy, as well as Portrush native Graeme McDowell, with the home fans licking their lips at the prospect of witnessing a first-ever Major triumph by an Irishman on Irish soil.
“It’s going to be a massive week for golf, for the country and for me, personally,” says McIlroy. “I have to go out there in the right frame of mind and not let anything get to me.If I can harness that sort of support from my home crowd and use it to my advantage and not feel like it’s a burden, then it can only help.
“Obviously , it will make it more special if I could win at Portrush but I just have to treat it like every other Open Championship that I’ve played over the last few years.”
McIlroy is enjoying argually the most consistent season of his career so far – two wins, at The Players Championship and at the Canadian Open, a runner-up finish and another eight top-10 finishes from 13 starts with just one missed cut.
Always hungry for more success, he is trusting in the process that has served him well. “I measure my game in terms of asking myself – am I improving? Am I getting better? Am I doing everything I can to become a better golfer than I was last year and the year before that?
“If I just look at my stats throughout the year, I’m bettering the field every time I play, and I think my strokes-gained total on the PGA Tour is half a shot better than the guy in second place.
“So, if I’m playing consistently good golf like that, I guess there’s no reason to believe why I wouldn’t go to Portrush with a good chance of winning.”
His determination was on display in March when he won The Players at TPC Sawgrass in Florida, against one of the strongest fields in world golf and on a really demanding layout.
His ability to romp home by a convincing margin was evident last month when he won in Canada by seven strokes. McIlroy has won by that margin (or more) four times out of 16 tournaments on the PGA Tour, which shows that when all aspects of his game are firing, he has the capability to win anywhere.
The four-time Major champion’s track record at The Open has been exceptional. Aside from his victory at Royal Liverpool in 2014 he has racked up top five finishes in his last three outings.
“I won in ’14, missed ’15 (due to injury), then I was top five in ’16, top five in ’17, and then second last year,” said McIlroy.
“So, I haven’t finished outside of the top five in an Open for quite a while, and I had a decent chance to win at Carnoustie last year.
“I’m confident and I believe that I can turn up at Open Championships and compete. I feel like I’ve started to become really comfortable at Opens so that obviously gives me optimism.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to win an Open Championship before and I’d dearly love to win another one.”
McIlroy is a self-confessed student of the game who uses modern advancements in statistical data to his advantage, because at the elite level it can take only the finest of margins to separate first from second place, especially over 72 holes. “Statistics, analysis and reflection – there are so many items that go into the game nowadays,” he said. “There are things that are measurable, compared to back in the glory days of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. There are more measurables now that you can analyse, and act upon.”
Asked if there is anything in particular that he believes he needs to address, he explained: “I’m always looking at stats and seeing if there are parts of the other guys’ game that I very much admire. I look at them and say, okay, is there anything I can learn from that? Or, is there anything that another player is doing that I can consider?
“For example, at the US PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, I really liked how Jason Day played his chip shots out of the long rough. I decided that was a technique I should try. There are always items that you can learn and try to put into your own game.”
So, does he set himself targets each year for how many wins he would like? “Not really, because that can take me away from what I’m trying to do, which is to focus on the little things that add up to a win, rather than just the result,” he said.
“I guess you can say I want to win six times a year, and I want to win a Major and I want to win the FedExCup and the Race to Dubai, but how do you carry it out? It’s not about saying it. It’s all about putting the little things in place that help you get to that destination.”
‘My best is yet to come’
McIlroy has been a regular winner since turning professional in 2007, clinching his first tournament in 2009 and going on to collect four Majors in addition to a host of other titles, including three Race to Dubai victories and the FedExCup.
He turned 30 in May and believes there is still plenty to come at the highest level.
“I definitely don’t feel 30,” he said. “This is my 11th year on Tour and I’m thinking to myself, where did all that time go? I don’t consider how old I feel. My body is as good as it has been in a couple of years, which I’m really grateful for.
“Every week when I tee it up, I feel like I’m gaining more experience that I can put into the next tournament, and then the next tournament. I still believe my best is yet to come, for sure.”
In June McIlroy finished in a share of ninth place at the US Open at Pebble Beach for his 11th top ten finish of the year but it represented another near miss in a Major, following a tie for eighth place at the PGA Championship. With the years slowly clocking up since his last Major success this month’s Open represents his last chance before a long wait until next April for The Masters, the only Major he needs to complete his career Grand Slam.
It’s 14 years since that course-record smashing round at Royal Portrush but it is still emblazoned boldly in McIlroy’s memory and he’ll be drawing on every ounce of his experience on the Dunluce Links when play gets underway on from July 18-21.
“There are not many golf rounds where I remember every shot, but for that round, I do,” he said. “I knew the record was 64. Once I got to nine-under through 16, I thought if I could par the remaining two and set a new record that would be pretty special.
“The 17th at the time was a par-five and the easiest birdie on the course. That took me to ten-under and I just thought, ‘don’t screw this up.’ I hit a perfect drive and a good eight iron into the heart of the green. I just wanted to two-putt but ended up rolling it in. I didn’t care what the score was, I just wanted the course record.
“I had my dad and a couple of uncles walking round and a mate of mine was on the bag. He had just turned 16 as well!”
McIlroy’s headline-grabbing feat occurred, fittingly, at the same time as the 134th Open Championship was taking place across the Irish Sea on the east coast of Scotland at St Andrews. He was to receive a message of congratulations from none other than Darren Clarke, who was at that time Northern Ireland’s biggest golf star but to McIlroy, it was all ‘par for the course’.
“News started to filter across there that I had done something special and I got a text from Darren, which was so cool,” he said.
‘A defining moment’
“It felt normal to me. I had that cockiness and thought this was what I was supposed to do. It’s only when time goes on that I realise these things are special and you should savour them.
“It was a defining moment. I became pro in 2007 and had two years to make the Walker Cup. But it was defining because the wider golf world took notice.”
McIlroy is now undisputedly his homeland’s biggest golfing export and if he can produce another career-defining moment on his return to Royal Portrush he will not only delight his army of friends, family and Irish fans, he will cement his place in history as one the greatest ever to play the game.