PORTRUSH, NORTHERN IRELAND – Rory McIlroy will tee off on Thursday in the Open Championship as the betting favourite. And he’ll also come to the first tee as the overwhelming winner of the Mr. Popularity contest.
Northern Ireland’s favourite son has been cheered, praised and applauded at every turn this week. The only thing the fans haven’t done is carry him around the course on a sedan chair.
McIlroy may not have been solely responsible for bringing the Open back to his home region, but he certainly played a role. The last time it was here was back in 1951. Much of the reason it never returned was due to the troubled political and social environment, which, despite a signed peace accord, still seems to ripple through the undercurrent here.
McIlroy was far too young to remember those days known as 'The Troubles' although he’s old enough now to understand why the Open was always in Scotland and England.
“I suppose as a kid I never really thought about it,” he stated during a jammed press conference on Wednesday. “I never really thought about the reasons why. I mean, the obvious political struggles that we had in the '70s, '80s, '90s, I was too young to really grasp the magnitude and the reasons and be able to comprehend what the solutions were back in those days.”
McIlroy was more interested in hitting the dimpled ball, watching it soar, finding it and hitting it again. He grew up about an hour south of the course near Belfast, and first played Royal Portrush when he was 10, as a birthday present from his father. He set the course record at 16, although he disavows the 61 now due to the many changes to the layout, yardage and par since he posted that score in the North Of Ireland championship. He figures the true number will be set sometime in the next four days, perhaps as low as 63.
The 30-year-old could easily be the guy to turn in a scorecard with that number. His year has been exceptional. In 13 starts he’s finished in the top-10 11 times and won twice, at the Players Championship and the RBC Canadian Open where his final round was a 61.
In some ways, his position here is not unlike that every Canadian faces when that other Open returns home to the land of the Maple Leaf and they’re reminded of Pat Fletcher. The difference, of course, is that McIlroy has already won the Claret Jug, just not on home soil.
This week, there are also other big names to absorb some of the attention, players like Tiger Woods, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson, as well as fellow countrymen and major winners Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke.
“Look, I'm from Northern Ireland and I'm playing at home but I don't see myself as that centre of attention, I guess,” he stated almost convincingly. “I'm here to enjoy myself.”
In McIlroy’s eyes, this tournament is far bigger than any one player, even bigger than the game itself. In many ways, it could act as a salve to the deep cut that’s bled this region out for far too long.
“Sport has an unbelievable ability to bring people together,” said McIlroy. “We all know that this country sometimes needs that. This has the ability to do that. Talking of legacy, that could be the biggest impact this tournament has outside of sport, outside of everything else, is the fact that people are coming here to enjoy it and have a good time and sort of forget everything else that sort of goes on.”
McIlroy could add to that enjoyment by contending and set the region alight, in a good way, should he end up as the champion golfer of the year. It might do more to mend the harsh ways than any accord.