Rory McIlroy claimed his sixth victory in a national Open in Canda a month ago and would be a happy bunny if it became a “magnificent seven” in the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open at The Renaissance Club near Gullane this weekend.
“I’m here fully focused on this event and getting out there and playing well this week and trying to get myself in the mix,” insisted the world No 4, the highest-ranked player in a star-studded field for the $7 million Rolex Series tournament in East Lothian.
In short, McIlroy was affording the event the respect it deserves and it would certainly be terrific for the Scottish fans to see the 30-year-old in full flow and, if the chance does indeed arise, land a first victory in the home of golf on Sunday evening.
There can be no denying, though, that he already has one eye on next week’s assignment, an opprtunity to land a second Claret Jug but first on home soil as Royal Portrush stages the Open Championship for the first time since 1951.
McIlroy holds the course record at the County Antrim venue, having shot a 61 when he was just 16. That, coupled with the fact he’s not finished outside the top five in his last four appearances in the event, is making him feel quietly confident about ending a five-year drought in the majors just over an hour’s drive from his family home in Holywood.
“One of the big things for me next week is enjoy the experience,” he said as the chat in his press conference at The Renaissance Club inevitably switched to the season’s final major.
“It might be another 68 years until Portrush gets The Open, so go out and enjoy it. Smell the roses. Look around. See friends and family. It’s going to be such a great experience for me. The more I can enjoy that and roll with it and play with that freedom, the better I think I can do.”
McIlroy, who is playing this week for the first time since last month’s US Open at Pebble Beach, visited Portrush at the weekend for a practice round. The grandstands are up and the corporate hospitality suites have all been erected, but, to his delight, it still felt like the same Portrush that McIlroy has played over the years.
“I was saying to someone yesterday, I expected it to feel different than it did,” he said. “Yes, the stands are up and it looks fantastic, but it’s still the same golf course. When I got on the first tee, everything sort of started coming back to me: On the second tee, I aim it at the brown house, the fourth…everything started to come back. It felt like just the same old golf course that I grew up playing and it was nice.
“I had not seen my mum in three months. She left after Augusta to come back home. I made arrangements to go to dinner with them and I said, can we have it about 8.00 because I don’t know how much time I’m going to have to spend at Portrush and sort of just get my bearings, and I ended up moving the dinner forward because I didn’t needed to spend as much as time as I thought I did, which I guess is a comforting thing in a way.”
In his last Scottish Open appearance at Dundonald Links in 2017, the four-time major winner missed the cut and, though he then finished fourth in The Open at Royal Birkdale the following week, he had already put plans in place to shut down his season early that year so that he could give himself the best possible chance to try and get back to the scintilating form that saw him dominant the game when landing two majors and a WGC in the summer of 2014.
“I took three months off at the end of 2017 to try and get myself right for 2018 and I think the golf that I have played over the last two years has been a lot better, a lot more consistent, and that’s just because I’ve been able to do what I want to do in terms of practise, training, and committing myself to putting the work in and playing a bit more,” he said.”I played a big schedule last year. I’m on track to play a pretty big schedule this year. It’s just been nice to get two years where there’s been no real disruptions.”
McIlroy’s title rivals this week include a posse of Americans led by Justin Thomas, Matt Kuchar, Kevin Kisner, Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler, who is relishing the opportunity to try and repeat his title triumph in the event at nearby Gullane four years ago. “It’s a different kind of challenge from the standard links golf course,” said the American of Tom Doak’s modern links design. “It seems like into the greens, you can’t play many shots on the ground. There’s a little bit more kind of forcing you to play the ball in the air. But you still have to play with imagination and I enjoy that.”
Bidding to land a first home win since Colin Montgomerie did the trick at Loch Lomond in 1999, 15 Scots are in the field, with an added incentive for the likes of Richie Ramsay, Stephen Gallacher, David Law and Grant Forrest coming in the shape of three Open Championship spots on offer for the leading players not already exempt if they can finish in the top 10 on Sunday evening.