Rory McIlroy said that he is not feeling extra pressure this week as the British Open returns to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951, and is hoping home fans can help him to end a five-year major drought.
The world number three is the bookmakers’ favourite to lift the Claret Jug for the second time on Sunday, despite not having claimed a major title since the 2014 PGA Championship.
He said in the past he struggled with being the focus of attention at Irish Opens, although he did win that tournament in 2016.
“I think it’s probably easier this week because it’s such a big tournament,” said McIlroy. “You’ve got the best players in the world here, and I don’t feel like I’m the centre of attention.
“I’m here to enjoy myself. Hopefully it doesn’t take another 68 years for the tournament to come back here. But at the same time, I mightn’t get an opportunity to play an Open Championship here again.
“I’m really just treating it as a wonderful experience and one that I really want to enjoy.
“I’m going to love being out there and having the crowds and having the support. If that can’t help you, then nothing can.”
The 148th edition of golf’s oldest major will be the biggest sporting event held in Northern Ireland, with 237 750 people expected to attend during the week.
“Sport has an unbelievable ability to bring people together. We all know that this country sometimes needs that,” said McIlroy, who was only eight years old when the peace deal with England that ended the Troubles, called the Good Friday Agreement, was signed in 1998.
“It’s amazing to think 40 years on it’s such a great place, no one cares who they are, where they’re from, what background they’re from, but you can have a great life and it doesn’t matter what side of the street you come from.
“To be able to have this tournament here again, I think it speaks volumes of where the country and where the people that live here are now. We’re so far past that. And that’s a wonderful thing.
“I think no matter what happens this week, if I win or whoever else wins, having the Open back in this country is a massive thing for golf,” the 30-year-old added.
“And I think as well it will be a massive thing for the country.”
McIlroy fired a course record of 61 on the Dunluce Links at the age of just 16 in 2005, and is one of three Northern Irish major champions in the field along with Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke.
He said his first memories of Portrush came as a child, when he watched his father play.
“I remember chipping around the chipping green, being seven or eight years of age, my dad out playing on the Dunluce,” added McIlroy, who played a practice round on Tuesday.
“Portrush … at least the golf club, has been a big part of my upbringing. It’s sort of surreal that it’s here.
“Even driving in yesterday, when you’re coming in on the road and you look to the right and you’ve got the second tee … I don’t know who was teeing off, maybe [American player] Tony Finau and someone else, [it was] sort of strange to see them here.
“But it’s really cool.”
Since McIlroy’s record the course has been renovated, and the seventh and eighth are new holes.
But the 30-year-old said he did not have to spend too much time preparing on the course, such is his familiarity with it.
“I had dinner booked with parents on Saturday night at eight, thinking I’m going to have to spend some time around the greens and just prepare. And I got on the road back home and rang them and said: ‘Can we move dinner up?’ Because I finished early. There’s no difference. It’s the same golf course.”
McIlroy has been in strong form this year, winning twice, including the Players’ Championship, and posting 11 top-10 finishes.
He also finished in a tie for second at the Open at Carnoustie last year.
“I think it’s probably the most consistent period of golf I’ve ever played,” the 2014 champion said. — AFP