Saturday 24 February 2018

McIlroy upbeat ahead of Open

Bernie McGuire

Three years ago, newly-crowned British Open winner Pádraig Harrington remarked on how pleased he was to get his hands on the famed Claret Jug before the curly-haired teenager to his right.

The curly-haired teen was Rory McIlroy, who joined Harrington on the Carnoustie presentation green to receive the Silver Medal as the low amateur. In just over a week, McIlroy will tee up at the home of golf, St Andrews, among the favourites to succeed at the 150th anniversary of the game's oldest Major.

But rewind to the year before Carnoustie, when the then 17-year-old McIlroy first set eyes upon the Old Course as a competitor in the St Andrews Links Trophy. He stood on the opening tee staring at probably the widest fairway in golf -- even if Australia's Ian Baker-Finch failed to find the near 130-yard landing area by driving out-of-bounds in the 1995 Open.

"I had never been so nervous before that year as I was standing over my tee shot on the first hole of the Old Course and more nervous than any other golf course I had played before," said McIlroy. "There is just so much golfing history that goes with St Andrews and it was just so nerve-wracking, and you just want so much to hit that fairway."

At the time, strangely, the Old Course had little appeal to McIlroy but over time he has come to warm to the strip of land shaped long ago by the fury of the North Sea. What once was just another golf course is now his best friend.

"When I first walked on the course, my reaction was that I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about," said McIlroy. "But the more you play the Old Course the more you get to learn all the little subtleties of the golf course, so much so it's probably my favourite course in the world now. St Andrews has grown on me so much.

"I remember sort of thinking after that first round in 2006, 'Yeah! It's good but it was not like I thought it would be'. But you play it again and it just grows on you so much."

Memories have stockpiled for McIlroy since that first meeting with the grand old lady of golf. I stood with him behind the dark green wooden fence at the back of the 18th green when former British Open winner Paul Lawrie was putting out on the final day of the 2007 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. Ironically, Lawrie's missed putt gave McIlroy his Tour card in just his second event as a professional.

St Andrews was again kind to McIlroy in 2008 when finishing eighth in the same event and then last year -- with his father Gerry as his amateur partner -- McIlroy went within a whisker of becoming 'Champion of the Links'.

Now he heads into the Open emboldened by the heroics of Graeme McDowell at the US Open. "Seeing GMac do it at Pebble Beach has made me think that it might be more realistic than I previously thought it would be to win a Major," he says. "I am top 10 in the world and having witnessed GMac pull off the US Open then I will go to St Andrews thinking that I have to be one of favourites to win.

"And another plus for me is that there will be a lot of focus on GMac after his victory and that has to also definitely help. And while I know I will never really be able to go under the radar into any Major at least this year it won't be me who is the main focus.

"There will be focus especially as Tiger has won at St Andrews twice before along with GMac and Pádraig while Lee (Westwood) is also due one as well. But then I've also never played a St Andrews Open and it's going to be amazing to see all the grandstands full and all those people hanging out of the buildings down the side of the 18th.

"It's just going to be a completely different atmosphere at St Andrews than I have ever experienced in all the times I have been playing there. Wow! To walk up the 18th on Sunday with a two-shot lead would be simply mind-blowing!"

Sunday Independent

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