HE’S struggled to cope with the weight of expectation in the past, but Rory McIlroy claims he’s embracing the Irish Open experience this week.
“To be honest over the last couple of years I didn’t quite enjoy the tag of home favourite,” said the 23-year-old who gets his challenge under way at 12.50pm today alongside Keegan Bradley and Branden Grace.
“You look at so many people and when they have got home advantage it is an advantage and it should be, not just for me, but for the guys from here as well. It’s something that you really have to embrace and that’s what I will try and do this week.
“My game feels good. It actually felt pretty good at the US Open (he missed the cut at Olympic Club). At the US Open I felt like it was starting to come around. It’s just that if you’re slightly off at a US Open, it’s so hard to get yourself into contention.
“But my game feels in good shape. In a way it couldn’t be a better time to come back here and play Portrush. It brings back so many good memories and you can feed off that and that gives you confidence.”
McIlroy holds the course record at the Dunluce Course, a 61 recorded in qualifying for the North of Ireland as a 16-year-old.
He claims he can still remember almost every shot and rates it as one of his finest competitive rounds.
“I remember I missed a six-footer on the first for birdie – it could have been better!” he said.
“It was just one of those days where everything is on song. I turned three under, eagled 10, birdied 11, parred 12 and 13 and then birdied my way in.
“I’ve only had it a few times. People call it ‘in the zone’ – I got to six under and wanted to get to seven under, then I wanted to get to eight under.” He finished 11 under.
“Seven years ago – time goes pretty quickly.
“I think that and the 62 that I shot at Quail Hollow (on his way to victory in 2010) were very similar. The North of Ireland was a big event for me at the time but the other one was to win my first PGA Tour event. I rate them very closely,” added Rory.
“Links golf all depends on the conditions I suppose but if you play really good golf, you get rewarded around this golf course. It’s very fair but if you hit shots you shouldn’t you’re going to get punished. I’d take four 69s and see what happens.”
This is McIlroy’s last event before the Open at Royal Lytham. He left Sandwich last year - after a 25th place finish - doubting his ability ever to conquer bad weather.
The coming week and month could well be another test of that, but he states: “I want to try to become a better wind and bad weather player and the only way to do that is by playing in it.
“I got back home at the weekend and the weather was not particularly good, but I dragged myself out and hit balls and was like ‘this could actually be very beneficial for me’.”
There was also the admission after an early exit from Wentworth that he had “maybe taken my eye off the ball a little bit” and he has also faced accusations that perhaps he does not dig in as deep as he should when things are not working out as he hoped.
“Definitely in the past if things haven’t gone my way the fight goes out of me pretty quickly. That’s something I’m working on and something that I’m trying to get better at.”
Fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell added: “To see the town I grew up in scrubbed up and ready for one of the biggest events on the European Tour makes me very proud.
“The golf course will be of major championship standard.”
He added: “There will be plenty of expectation from the fans. The course is in fantastic condition and it’s exciting to have it laid out and conditioned for a Tour event.
“To be one of the three or four guys who helped make this happen through our major successes also gives me a huge sense of pride
“It’s a huge thrill to see such a great field assembled.”