Who are the dangers to McIlroy fairytale? By Iain Cartersento
Rory McIlroy is preparing to tee off in the biggest golf tournament of his life – the first major he will play in his native Northern Ireland.
The Open’s return to Royal Portrush, for the first time since 1951, should guarantee the 148th edition of the sport’s oldest and most revered championship is one of the most memorable in its history.
It may be pure coincidence, but the fact it is being staged in a year ending in a nine fuels optimism this will be an iconic week for the game.
Anniversaries abound; it is 50 years since Tony Jacklin’s landmark triumph at Lytham and 40 since Seve Ballesteros claimed his first Open at the same course.
Twenty years ago Paul Lawrie profited from Jean van de Velde’s calamitous final-hole collapse at Carnoustie and it is 10 since a 59-year-old Tom Watson came within an eight-foot putt of victory at Turnberry.
So history suggests something special will occur in County Antrim this week as the Open ventures outside Scotland or England for only the second time.
As we discovered in a special edition of the The Cut, the BBC golf podcast,anticipation has reached fever pitch at the home of the Dunluce Links which stages this week’s tournament.
The people of Northern Ireland cannot wait to be centre of the sporting world.
They have been thirsting for the prospect of Tiger Woods playing competitively there for the first time and to host the best players in the world on one of their finest courses.
This spectacular links on the north coast has been remodelled and extended during its quest to convince the R&A of its worthiness for the Open rota.
And nothing would cap its return better than a victory for the finest golfer Northern Ireland has ever produced. Where better for McIlroy to end a five-year barren run and add a fifth major to his resume?
“I’ve certainly had exciting periods when I’ve been playing well and winning,” McIlroy told BBC Sport.
But has he encountered such a sense of excitement before any other tournament?
“As an event with as much anticipation, probably not. It is something I have thought about for a long time.
“I never thought I would be able to play an Open Championship at home. It’s been 68 years since Portrush hosted the Open.
“I’m treating it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m going to try to make the most of it.”
This is the course where, as a 16-year-old, McIlroy famously shattered the course record with a 61 in the North of Ireland Championship. It was a round that confirmed his potential to be one of the best players in the world.
But it does not guarantee a fairytale victory this week. He has to battle a significantly changed layout, a field containing the very best players, and inner demons which have seemingly held him back in recent majors.
When it has come to grasping historic moments, McIlroy has been found wanting. He has faded from contention in all five Masters he has played while seeking the win that would complete the career Grand Slam.
Indeed, he has failed to win any of the big ones since claiming his second US PGA Championship title at Valhalla in 2014. And while his form has been solid this year, with two wins and 11 top-10s, he has not threatened to add to his major tally.
The new calendar means failure this week would make this a fifth successive year without further climbing the ladder of golfing greatness. With the PGA in its new May date, The Open is the last major of the men’s season.
So McIlroy has to find his best golf when he needs it most and while he occupies the most intense spotlight of his career. He needs a kind draw, inspired golf and to tap into the immense support he will inevitably carry at Royal Portrush.
As with every major, there is no shortage of potential winners. Woods arrives as the Masters champion but the damp weather forecast is not going to encourage him.
The 43-year-old has been waking at 1am back home in Florida to prepare for the five-hour time difference but who knows how his troublesome back will respond if it does not feel the heat of warm sunshine?
This will be Woods’ first competitive golf since last month’s US Open at Pebble Beach. Defending champion Francesco Molinari also seems under-raced, having played only once since that major.
Brooks Koepka looks a far better bet. The big-hitting American has won four of his past nine majors and has not been out of the top two in his past four, which include his two PGA triumphs.
Furthermore he has a Portrush native at his side. Caddie Ricky Elliott, a fine player in his own right, is a contemporary of another of the town’s great golfing sons – Graeme McDowell.
On current form, if this is an Open written in the stars, the greatest likelihood is they they spell out K-O-E-P-K-A – with E-L-L-I-O-T-T in brackets – than any other name.
But taking form and confidence into account, we should also consider the chances of Jon Rahm, the Spaniard who won his second Irish Open at Lahinch the week before last.
Of the two build-up events on the European Tour, the Irish seemed the more relevant. It was genuine links, set up with Portrush in mind, and Rahm loved it with his tournament-winning 62.
A Spanish win 40 years on from Seve’s breakthrough major? That would also be pretty fitting, although not quite as pertinent as a Rory return to major success on home soil.