PORTRUSH: The British Open returns to Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years this week at Royal Portrush, giving Rory McIlroy the opportunity on home soil to end his five-year major drought.
The four-time major champion has not lifted one of golf’s big four trophies since winning the 2014 US PGA Championship, but is the bookmakers’ favourite to get his hands on the Claret Jug after finishing tied for second a year ago at Carnoustie, two strokes behind Francesco Molinari.
McIlroy has continued his consistent form this season, claiming two titles including the prestigious Players’ Championship while recording 11 top-10 finishes.
He admitted that it would be a dream come true to triumph in the 148th Open Championship at a club where as a 16-year-old he fired a course record 61.
“If I’m being honest, it would obviously mean the world to me,” said the Northern Irishman, who won the 2014 Open at Hoylake.
“But just like winning Hoylake meant the world to me as well. Just getting my hands on that Claret Jug again would be a huge accomplishment.”
World number three McIlroy, who won the 2016 Irish Open at the K Club just outside Dublin, was keen to play down the pressure of playing in front of his home fans.
“I think it’s going to feel normal. It’s going to feel like just another Open Championship,” said the 30-year-old after a solid showing at last week’s Scottish Open.
“I’ve played in a few of them now. I know what to expect. Might be a little louder.
“Atmosphere might be a bit different but the objective is the same, to go there and play good golf and hopefully give myself a chance to win the Claret Jug.”
Englishman Max Faulkner won the last Open to be played at Portrush, in 1951, taking home a top prize of just £300 (US$375). The champion this year will receive US$1,935,000 (£1.5 million).
‘I just hope I hit the fairway’
Among the favourites is red-hot world number one Brooks Koepka and a resurgent Tiger Woods.
But the fans will roar loudest for McIlroy and his compatriots, including 2011 Open champion Darren Clarke, who will have the honour of hitting the first tee shot of the tournament early on Thursday at his home course — he lives in the town of Portrush.
“It’s going to be amazing,” said Clarke.
“Thursday morning is going to be exciting. And I just hope I manage to get one going straight down the fairway.”
Koepka’s recent major record remarkable – he has won four in his last nine appearances and finished first twice and second twice in the last four he has played.
He missed Carnoustie a year ago through injury but his British Open record has been good, with two top-10s from five appearances and a best of tied sixth in 2017.
Woods will play professionally in Northern Ireland for the first time as he seeks a 16th major to close on Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18.
The 43-year-old American capped one of the sport’s greatest comebacks by winning the Masters in April, despite previously slipping out of the top 1,000 in the world rankings after years of struggling with back injuries and poor form.
Woods’ reimposed threat at the top of the game was confirmed 12 months ago at Carnoustie when he seized the lead on the back nine in the final round, only to finish in a tie for sixth, three shots behind winner Molinari.
The Italian says he has kept good care of the Claret Jug since his triumph 12 months ago.
“We’ve had a couple of drinks out of it. Nothing out of the ordinary,” he said. “I’ve got small kids at home so I had to keep it out of reach most of the time to avoid disaster.”