HE’S here to enjoy himself in the company of his dad, Gerry. Perhaps even land him a special 55th birthday present by winning the team event on Sunday. Rory McIlroy, though, is also lining up in this week’s Dunhill Links Championship with one eye on his Claret Jug defence next year.
Providing he makes the 54-hole cut, the world No 1 will get two outings on the Old Course, venue for the 2015 Open Championship and a place McIlroy has always seen himself winning the game’s oldest major.
“I haven’t played here in a couple of years, so it will be nice to look around the course before next year,” admitted the 25-year-old, who claimed his third major title with victory at Hoylake in July then quickly added the US PGA Championship at Valhalla.
“I’ve always felt comfortable at St Andrews and played well here. Indeed, I always felt like St Andrews was my best chance to win the Open Championship. Obviously I proved myself wrong this year but I can’t think of a better golf course to come to try to defend the Open Championship.”
Seven years ago, McIlroy effectively used the Dunhill Links Championship as his launchpad to become the game’s new superstar. In finishing third behind Nick Dougherty, he earned enough money to secure his European Tour card for the next season. Through that foothold, it’s been onwards and upwards ever since, albeit with the odd hiccup here and there. “It was a life-changing week for me as a young 18-year-old just starting out in his professional career,” said McIlroy of that effort in 2007.
He’ll be eternally grateful to Johan Rupert, chairman of Richemont, which Alfred Dunhill is part of, for that opportunity. That loyalty to the event is why he’s here this week along with three Ryder Cup-winning team-mates – Victor Dubuisson, Stephen Gallacher and Martin Kaymer.
“I probably couldn’t have picked a better week to play after the Ryder Cup,” confessed McIlroy, who starts out today with most of the other big guns in the field at Carnoustie. “I’m playing on three of my favourite golf courses in the world and will be walking around with my dad. It’s a nice way to try and come down after what was really such an incredible week last week. I’m looking forward to hopefully continuing the good golf that I have played over the past few months and give myself another chance to win a tournament here. I finished second here in 2009 and 2011. It’s my dad’s 55th birthday on Sunday so hopefully we can walk around St Andrews on his birthday and me having a chance to win the tournament as well. That would be something very special.”
Special certainly sums up McIlroy’s career to date, the Northern Irishman now looking as though he can be the game’s dominant player for as long as he wants on the back of an incredible few months. It was sparked by victory in the BMW PGA Championship and, in addition to those two major titles, also included a WGC victory in the Bridgestone Invitational. A third Ryder Cup triumph in three appearances, too.
“The Ryder Cup is important to me,” admitted McIlroy, who once described the event as an “exhibition match” but was green behind the ears then and, in fairness, hadn’t sampled its special atmosphere. “I haven’t been beaten in the singles, which is a record I’d love to keep throughout my career. Monty [Colin Montgomerie] was never beaten in the singles in the Ryder Cup and that’s something I would love to emulate.
“At the age of 25, to have won three Ryder Cups and four majors is something I’m very proud of – eight years younger than anyone else. Tom Watson was 33 and then Gene Sarazen was 35,” he added, admitting that Twitter had made him a fountain of knowledge when it came to such a statistic.
Having proved a powerful force in Paul McGinley’s appointment as Ryder Cup captain, McIlroy’s voice could well be a strong one again in terms of the Irishman’s successor for the 2016 match at Hazeltine in Minnesota.
“I feel that Darren Clarke would be the perfect man to lead the team there,” he said. “Just because he has such a great reputation everywhere, but especially in the States. The fans really love him there and he’s got a good rapport with everyone.”
Having lost out to Billy Horschel in the FedEx Cup, McIlroy is determined to hold on to his lead in the Race to Dubai and win that for the second time in three seasons. It’s a feat he’s already achieved in terms of the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year, which McIlroy discovered he’d won for this season when he received a phone call from Tim Finchem as he was standing on the 18th tee on the Old Course in his practice round yesterday.
“Being voted Player of the Year by your peers is important,” admitted McIlroy. “They are the guys that you play with week in, week out. If they appreciate what you’ve done over the year and see the hard work you’ve put in and the golf you’ve played, that means a lot to me.”
He wasn’t even in the reckoning 12 months ago, having to wait until the Australian Open in November – his last event of the season – to taste victory. “That gave me more motivation to go and work harder to win more tournaments more majors and be involved in more Ryder Cups like last week,” he added.
In an event carrying a £3 million prize pot, McIlroy is joined by a strong South African contingent headed by Ernie Els, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Branden Grace, while the field also includes Colin Montgomerie, Sandy Lyle and Nick Faldo.